The seed was planted for this trip in 1991 when I read a book titled Old Path White Clouds: Walking in the Footsteps of the Buddha by the wonderful Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh. I read the book in preparation for the essay I was writing for my Buddhism Quintych, the first installment of the Designs of Faith Project. This sensitive, poetic biography of the historical Buddha rekindled the love of Buddhism that had been lit in my graduate school days and set me on a path of a more active lay Buddhist and student of the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh. It also stimulated a sincere and lasting desire to visit the sites in India and Nepal where the primary events of the Buddha’s life took place.
Another event took place in 1992 that was to influence my decision to make this trip. In that year I researched and did a series of paintings based on Lakota and Dakota animal wisdom stories. At that time I was aware of the Jakata tales tradition in Buddhism in which the Buddha’s previous lives as animals were told. I knew at that time I wanted to produce a series of Buddhist animal wisdom story paintings based on the Jataka tales. That project concept was put on the back burner as I was at work on the Designs of Faith Project until late 1998 and then needed one more year to finish the Elders of the Benedictines Project which was also under way. At the end of 1999 the time was finally right to come back to my idea of the Buddhist animal stories. December and January are considered prime months to travel in India to avoid the heat and rain so I chose to fit the trip between semesters. I financed the trip by saving exhibition and lecture fees from my other projects and I also received the Terence Brown Memorial Art Travel Award from the Northern State University Foundation.
My decision to travel alone was partially financial but primarily because I had no idea what I was getting myself into and I didn’t want someone else to suffer due to my inexperience. I began researching and planning a full year in advance. I read up on India and bought books that gave “insider” information on traveling there. I found one that I particularly liked that dealt with budget travel. I used the Summer months of 1999 to do extensive research on Jataka tales and amassed more than 60 that I thought had potential. In some cases I found up to five different versions of one story which was very valuable to me because my plans were to rewrite and fuse different versions of these traditional stories and put them into a common American voice. I booked my flight in the late Summer wanting to be sure of a seat during the anticipated heavy traffic of the millennium celebration. The Fall and Winter saw increased planning with the evolution of a detailed itinerary following the Buddhist pilgrimage path. I planned to have my three week journey take me to the following sites: Lumbini, Nepal, the site of the Buddha’s birth; Bodh Gaya, India, the site of Buddha’s enlightenment and home of the great Bodhi tree; Rajgar, Vaishai, Sravasti, all famous teaching sites of the Buddha; Nalanada, site of an ancient Buddhist complex of universities and monasteries; Kushinagar, the site of the Buddha’s death; Varanasi, one of greatest and most ancient Hindu holy cities; and Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. I attempted to do some long-distance calling to reserve rooms but with poor results — except one reservation made in Bodh Gaya. I decided to “wing it” and be adventurous. I took care to “outfit” for the trip, purchasing a first-aid kit, mosquito repellent, medicines and so on. I had a series of eight vaccinations for various illnesses I might come in contact with in India. I also decided that I would paint on the trip as well, doing quick watercolor sketches on site. This was a fresh idea for me. During the 1980s I had done a few nature studies while traveling but never scenic sketching. I ordered a little compact watercolor set and a half dozen 9” X 12” watercolor blocks.
I became more and more excited – and nervous – as my departure date approached. This was quite a jump for my very first overseas trip. Many of my friends, not to mention my family, voiced concerns about my safety. I was not really too concerned. I thought the annual trip I take to New York City was probably more dangerous — or a trip to the Black Hills in the winter for that matter. The only time the danger factor sunk in was when I asked our wonderful secretary in the art department, Mary, what I needed to sign before I left. She gave me one blank form and said to sign the bottom, “Just in case you don’t come back.” Mary is efficient. As the planning for this trip progressed it clearly developed a number of overlapping dimensions. First, it was to be pilgrimage to the sites of the Buddha where the great teachings developed, in hope of deepening my understanding and compassion. Second, it was to be a research trip to gather as much information as possible on Jataka tales and also gather visual information that would be of help in composing the eventual paintings. Third, it was to be a painting trip to do quick watercolor sketches to express my aesthetic impression of my experience. Fourth, the trip was definitely to be tourism. I would see and experience sites, places, and people foreign to me. Lastly the trip had a teaching dimension to it in that my experiences would be directly applicable to a class I teach called Art, Religions and Values.
I began the trip with many expectations of what the three weeks could do for me but I was not at all certain what the trip had in store for me.
India Journal –
December 26, 1999 – January 16, 2000
December 26, 1999
I am packed the night before and Sammy, my wife, takes me to the airport at 6:30am. We say a anxious goodbye and the flight takes off at 7:00. My schedule takes me to Minneapolis, then to Chicago, from there to Zurich, Switzerland, and finally to Mumbai (or Bombay, as it was known before its fairly recent name change), India. At every airport the televisions are all tuned to CNN and its coverage of the hijacking of an Indian Airlines plane – very disconcerting. For the most part the flight is uneventful but very long. One small event happens in Zurich that would be insignificant were it not for later events. As I stand in front of one of the porcelain fountains in the men’s room with a line of other travelers, in walks a woman airport cleaner as nonchalantly as could be and begins cleaning up around us. This was my first exposure to differences in toilet customs.
After more than 30 hours in planes and airports I arrive in Mumbai. It is a city of 12.5 million people and the only thing I wish to see here is the airport. Before I left Aberdeen my travel agent found out that my first internal flight to Patna had been canceled and she had switched my flight from Sahara Air to Indian Airlines, but Swiss Air would not reissue the ticket until I arrived. When I arrive Swiss Air tells me I am not in their computer for the flight. I protest and they say, “OK.” They say I am on the flight, so off I go to Indian Airlines domestic terminal. At the terminal I find I’m not on the flight I am on a standby list. Indian Airlines is run in a basically 19th century manner with much hand stamping of things and rude glances. The woman who handles the standby passengers and relegates who will get seats and who will not sits in the center of the counter area. She is surrounded by people yelling, shouting and thrusting their tickets at her for her blessing. Occasionally she looks up at the screaming mob and takes a ticket and stoically looks at it a while and then either blesses it with a seat or thrusts it back at the would-be passenger. I was never blessed and it was the only flight to Patna. I remember the Swiss Airlines agent saying that the Sahara Airline flight had actually not been canceled and possibly I could get a seat there. I ask Indian Airlines to call Sahara Airlines and see if I can get on. They refuse, they cannot call, and I cannot either. I decide to flee this strange place and I gather up my bags and rush out and grab a taxi and ask to be taken to the Sahara Airlines terminal.
My first inclination that things are not as they should be is when I notice we are in a hotel area and not an airport area. I ask what is going on when the driver pulls up to a kiosk with Sahara Airlines and the names of a bunch of other airlines painted on the side. He says the man here can call and the airline will then hold a seat for me. Well, I reluctantly say “OK.” The man at the kiosk calls and talks for quite a while. He then hangs up the phone and says everything has been arranged. I have a seat and the ticketing charge will be $49.00, and I’m to pay him. Right. I tell him to undo what ever he did. I will handle it at the airport myself. He is furious and says he can’t. We are surrounded by his cohort of young Indian men. I don’t back down. I tell my driver, who is of course part of the scam, to get into the taxi, we are going. He does and the screaming man follows us. He wants $20.00 for the phone call. I give him a dollar and he screams at us as we drive away. The driver finally gets me to the airport and tries to gouge me on the taxi fee. I give him about a fourth of what he asks for and he screams at me as I walk away dragging my bags behind me. At the Sahara Airlines office I find the flight has been canceled just as my Aberdeen agent had said. They can put me on tomorrow’s flight in the afternoon but I remember that Indian Airlines has an 8:00 a.m. flight. I find their office and book the flight with them.
Now I need a hotel room for the rest of the day as it is only about 10:00 a.m. although it feels like 10:00 p.m. to me as I’m half way around the world and haven’t slept on the 30 hours of flights. I look in my travel books and find a hotel that is close to the airline that I need in the morning. I get an auto rickshaw to take me to the hotel that is only about six to eight blocks away because my bag is too heavy to carry. The driver tries to gouge me again – the word must be that stupid Americans will pay whatever is asked. I give him what I was told at the airline office would be a fair rate to get to the hotel and he is very unhappy. I get my bag to the hotel office and two clerks who alternate between being rude and disinterested get me an overpriced room. I’m exhausted and I take it. I get my stuff into the room and collapse on the bed and finally get a little sleep.
I wake mid-afternoon and check my travel book for interesting things to see in Mumbai. The only place that really interests me is too far away to get to before dark. I decide to stay in my room and hide from the kind of people I have met so far in Mumbai. I notice a construction site out my small window. It is very strange. It looks like a cross between construction and archeology. The project looks as if it has been going on for decades. Building materials lay in rusted masses and all the along the rear there is a long row of make-shift shanties where the construction workers live with their families. This was my first big clue that, as Dorothy once said, “Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.” People are eating, bathing, urinating, and occasionally what may be working at the site. I decide to break out my paints and do a couple of quick sketches of the shanties. I also notice a strange large crow-like bird hanging around the construction site. It is very similar to our crows only maybe a bit bigger and a combination of black and a grayish-brown color. I do one sketch of the bird and then a flock of them settle down on some scaffolding and I do a sketch of them as well. The painting was fun and I feel a bit better. I order dinner from room service. It’s OK. I’m sleepy again and take another nap. I wake at 10:00 p.m. and am not sleepy – my body, of course thinks it is morning.
At about midnight very loud yelling begins in a nearby room. It is very angry, hostile and violent. It goes on and on. I finally call the desk fearing someone is going to get hurt. The call has no effect. The yelling goes on for hours. At about 4:00 a.m. it stops. It doesn’t matter I can’t sleep anyway. I finish reading The City of Joy by Dominique Lapierre, a 500 page book given to me as a travel gift by my colleague in the art department, Bill Hoar. The book is a very well written documentation of the poverty of Calcutta in the 1970s. It is a very good priming for the trip.
I start getting myself ready to go at 5:00 a.m. to be at the airport very early for my 8:00 a.m.` flight to Patna. I get a taxi and set a price with him before we go – the only way to use taxis in India I have figured out. At the airport I find that the flight has been delayed because of fog in Dehli which we have to pass.
While waiting I discover that none of my flights on Indian Airlines for my entire trip are in their computers. I have no reservations at all for flights I have already paid for. I find one helpful clerk who enters them in the computer for me — I hope. The Patna flight finally departs at 9:30 a.m. It is then delayed in landing by even more fog. All the airports in India are packed with army personnel. Security checks are everywhere due to the hijacking and threats of more.
In Patna I need a taxi to the train station where I plan to catch a train to Gaya and then a taxi to Bodh Gaya, already altering my well planned itinerary. It is a free-for-all of taxi drivers trying nab me. I set a good price and off I go. The driver tries to talk me into having him take me directly to Bodh Gaya in the taxi for 2,000 rupees, about $47.00. He then goes down to 1,200 rupees. I refuse. He is driving like a madman and the taxi doesn’t sound like it could make it that distance.
He drops me at the train station. It doesn’t look like it could be functioning. It appears to be in a state of decay that has seen no attention for the past 50 years. But there are people, thousands and thousands of people. I get a porter and go to get a ticket. There are no lines to get tickets just a solid mass of humanity surging and pushing until one surfaces by a window. The porter tells me where I need to go and I do it. I finally get to a window and make it known where I’m going and I ask for a first-class ticket; there are none left. I have to go to another window to get a second-class ticket, so the struggle starts all over, but I finally succeed. Next I must find out what platform the train departs from. A huge area has to be walked across and I go up flights of stairs before I find the platform and departure time. The porter takes me there. It is about a half a mile from the station on the lowest level. I have not seen another Westerner in the station yet. On this particular platform I would guess a Westerner has never been seen before. I am a freak. Some people seem curious, some shocked, some hostile.
The environment is almost beyond description. The many tracks that run around us are nearly covered with trash. People are urinating and defecating out in the open on all sides of the tracks. The place smells like a sewer and worse. Cows and dogs are all over, both half-wild scavengers. What was to be a one-hour wait turns into four hours. I sit on my big black duffel bag and try not to seem frightened, which for the most part I am not.
Finally the train arrives. It is unbelievable. People are hanging out the doors, they are stuffed in the car and somehow more manage to stuff themselves on. There is no way my bag and I will fit anywhere. Some kind soul tells me that the train on the other side of the tracks is also going to Gaya in a while and it’s an express train. I thank him and decide to take my chances on it. I find a car and get on it. It is strange with benches rather that seats. I figure it must be a cheap car and I have a cheap ticket so I’ll give it a try.
I sit on the train for two hours before it slowly starts to fill. I discover that this is a sleeper car. The benches are actually the beds and more fold down from the wall. I figure the car can’t be full and I can get an extra seat. But I was wrong, not only is the car full but each “bed” is assigned by number to a passenger. I end up sitting on a tiny conductor stool by the door and balancing my big bag in front of the door. When the conductor finally comes. I plead with him to let me stay. He is reluctant and I don’t think has any English and finally shrugs his shoulders and walks away. I am relieved. The car is full of a strange variety of men, some army, some laborers, some lower-class businessmen. They all seem equally hostile to me. I definitely get the feeling that Westerners don’t belong here. The train finally gets going and it is pitch black out. The men all settle into their beds. I look back into the car and one man seems to be sitting on the edge of his bed masturbating. I do not prolong my gaze to find out. I shift my view to the front of car where the toilets are, basically two reeking holes in the bottom of the train. This “express” train seems to stop about every five minutes. Everyone is bedded down when the train stops and out of the blackness our car is attacked. What seems to be dozens of men are beating on the car, beating very hard. There are bars on the windows and we have the doors bolted. The attack goes on and on. I am terrified. I look around to see how the rest of the passengers are reacting. They looked terrified as well and that does not comfort me. My thoughts, and maybe theirs as well, goes back to the stories and films I have seen about Hindus attacking trains of Muslims and Muslims attacking trains of Hindus and slaughtering the passengers during the time of the Pakistan partition. I push my bag against the door for more reinforcement and finally the train begins to move again and the attack stops. Everyone on the car goes back to sleep. It is dark and the windows are so filthy that I can’t see out. All train station markings that are lit are in Hindi. There is no way for me to know where my stop is. I am sick that I will miss Gaya and spend the entire night on this dreadful train. After a while a man gets up to go to the toilet. On his way back he says to me, “The next stop is Gaya.” What a relief. I get off and follow others who have detrained to find the depot. The station looks like one of the lower regions of Hell. Literally thousands of people are laying on the floors sleeping under rags. I remember my horror at the homeless in the subways of New York in the late 1980’s. The scene in front of me now is vastly worse, so many families, so many children.
It is about 1:00 a.m. and I know I can’t get to Bodh Gaya tonight. No travel is advised at night in the Indian state of Bihar where I am now. I look in my travel book for a hotel close to the train station and find one directly across the street that is given a good recommendation. I drag my stuff over and deal with desk people who are even more rude and indifferent than the last hotel. I get a room and pull my bags in. The travel book is wrong. It is the dirtiest room I have ever seen. I try not to let any of my things come in contact with any of the surfaces, but I am exhausted and can’t face the street again tonight. I settle in a bit and lay on top of the blanket using my meditation cushion as a pillow. It is incredibly loud. The room directly across the hall is playing a boom box full blast with Hindi pop music. Am I going to go tell them to turn it off? I think not. I try ear plugs but it really doesn’t matter I still can’t sleep – four sleepless nights in a row now.
When I decide to get moving in the morning at about 6:00 a.m. I feel my luck must change today, it has been just too horrible so far. I eat a few crackers with peanut butter that Sammy was wise enough to get me to bring and drink a little of the bottled water I brought from Swiss Airlines. I repack what little I have unpacked and try not to pick up any of the crud that layers everything.
I negotiate a price and hire an auto rickshaw driver to take me to Bodh Gaya, 18 kilometers to the south. There is heavy fog and mist. The vehicle has no windshield wiper so the driver has nearly no visibility. It doesn’t seem to slow him down as we speed through town. He is picking up other fares. I yell at him that I am his fare right now. He says OK but he needs to pick up his son – fine. Strange, his son seems to be about the same age as he is. Off we go to Bodh Gaya – it is very cold. We finally get there and find the Burmese Monastery where I have made reservations. Wrong. They have no reservation and no room for me. They show me a filthy basement with about a hundred cots out in the open. I can stay there if I wish. I think not. They say there are some guest houses just down the road I can check. I walk down the road realizing that my luck is not changing. I find one of the places, and they have a room that they show me. It is small, the floor is concrete\dirt and it doesn’t have a bathroom. I’m about to say no, but the young man who is trying to help really seems quite pleasant, a quality I haven’t run into yet in India. His English is quite limited so he goes and gets a young Tibetan monk who is staying there who has better English to help me understand the room rate and so on. The young monk is very nice. He seems to be able to feel my stress and offers me bread and jam with buttered and salted Tibetan tea for breakfast, which he had in his room. This kindness won me over. I take the room. It is 200 rupees per day, about $5.00.
I rearrange the room. It has two beds that have thin foam mattresses over wooden planks. I put both mattresses on one bed and make the other bed into a kind of studio table. Gupta, the young caretaker, has decorated the room with pages of old calendars depicting nearly the full pantheon of the primary Hindu Gods. There above me were Shiva, Durga, Ganesha, Krishna, and others – quite nice really. He also made a sign with the name of the guest house out of cut pieces of Styrofoam.
I decide to try to find an international phone to make a call to Sammy to let her know I’m all right (well, kind of) and where I’m staying. Gupta walks along as he seems to be finished with his shift. There is a phone just a little way down the road. These phones are all over India. You pay for direct dialed calls and there is usually a meter that shows you how many rupees you are spending as you talk. In every phone I used I found you nearly always have three or four young Indian men standing around and listening to every word you say. I do get Sammy and I try not to sound as bad as I feel as I know she is worrying about me. The calls are expensive so there is not much time for small talk. I decide to walk down and explore the market; Gupta comes along. He asks if I would like to see his family’s business. I say sure. He takes me to a tiny hardware store, one room about 10’ X 12’. Seven brothers and their families run the business and most live in a couple of small, attached rooms. Gupta makes me a cup of chai, tea cooked with milk, spices and sugar. I drink my tea and chat with his brothers and play a bit with one of his nephews. Then I’m on my way to explore more of the market.
It is a wild and crazy place. It seems that everything is sold here. Garbage is everywhere as are cows and other animals. People, bikes, scooters, auto rickshaws, bicycle rickshaws and taxis jostle one another for what little space there is in the muddy little road. The most obnoxious “stores” are the music cassette salesmen. They have set up enormous old speakers and are blasting at full volume Indian pop music. Children play hakey sack with strange little balls that look like bundles of rubber bands. They also play badminton in the streets among crowds of people. It makes for a very different game from what I’m used to.
I buy some oranges and bananas and return to my room for lunch and a rest. Afterwards I decide to go to Mahabodhi Temple, the great center of this Buddhist pilgrimage site. It is the temple that is built at the place where the Buddha reached his enlightenment and was able to start formulating his teachings. It contains a direct descendant of the Bodhi tree under which the Buddha was meditating and a marker that designates the spot on which he sat. I pack my day bag with my painting supplies and camera, grab my sitting cushion and off I go. The beggars are dense around the entrance to the temple. I give one a coin and I am mobbed by a horde of them. I then see a sign asking tourists and pilgrims not to give to beggar children as they have better options for support if they choose to follow them. It sounds like a good idea to me.
I make my way into the temple grounds. It is wonderful. The temple soars 54 meters into the air. It is surrounded by smaller stupas and sculptural areas and great pippala trees. It is a bit run down but still amazing. It is literally alive with all kinds of people — monks, pilgrims, tourists, guards – so many activities going on everywhere. Chanting, prostrating, walking, praying, reading, decorating. It is a temple that is alive. They seem to be getting ready for a major celebration. A librarian from Patna with very good English strikes up an interesting but rather persistent conversation with me. After his questions finally get around to my marital status I figure out he is checking see if I’m gay. He discerns I’m not and goes away.
I do a considerable amount of photography being visually enthralled with the place. Dogs seem to be everywhere. They all have the same basic look – middle size, pointed ears, thin and sickly. They basically lay around and scavenge food. No one pays them much attention unless they get too close then they are shooed away. I see some monks giving them leftovers from their meals – not affectionately – just giving it to them. It seems such a different relation of dogs to humans. They seem half wild even in this urban setting. I then settle in to do some watercolor sketches. The first I do from the outer, upper level walkway where many people do devotional “laps” of the temple. It is a bit unnerving because hundreds of people stop to watch me painting. I’m a bit surprised. For the next two I move down into the lower level of the temple grounds. I still draw a crowd but mainly of children. They watch until their attention span fades and then they move on, all except one little Tibetan girl. She is a bit of a pest in that she gets into my stuff, but she is sweet as well. She has a dandy cold that I’m sure she will give me by sneezing all over me.
On my way home buy some incense and a cheap burner. I rest for a while in my room and then go to nearby tent restaurant (most restaurants in Bodh Gaya are in tents) called the Original Pole to Pole. It is very grubby. The floor is dirt and the ceiling is covered with spider webs and spiders that I take to be their fly and mosquito control. The place is filled with twenty-something Buddha-hippies (Westerners). They are all wrapped in Indian shawls and scarves and other Indian clothes trying to look as Indian as possible, and, of course, still looking extremely white. I decide not to waste the effort and keep my jeans and cap that mark me an American. I do have to smile as I watch them mainly because I do see my younger self in them. To order your food you write what you want on a piece of paper and give it to the cook, either Papua or Jimmie. It took about an hour for the food to come and it was delicious, well worth the wait and the 80 rupees. With the dirtiness of the place I wonder if I will get sick, but I figure I will just have to chance it. I head back to my room. It is 7:00 p.m. and I am exhausted. I pile on my warm pajamas and ear plugs, it is very noisy, and I go to bed and sleep – yes, I sleep well for ten hours.
I wake at 5:00 a.m. and go to the hallway toilet – a squat toilet that is. I had read about this very different toilet in my research for the trip but the reality of it is still quite startling. The squat toilets are usually porcelain but they are simply a hole in the floor with two “non-slip” foot rests on each side. Some have a flush and some you flush with a bucket of water. The objective is to literally squat on top of the opening. The real shocker for Westerners is that there is no toilet paper involved. Indians instead use a container of water and their left hand to clean themselves. The left hand is then not used for much of anything else (this is a problem for myself as a left-handed person – I’m sure I looked shocking eating with my left hand). I wasn’t quite up for this system and I brought my own paper. From the Indian perspective, they think it is gross that Westerners only use paper and wipe rather than water to wash clean. I must say it is a tremendous saving of paper and trees to have one billion Indians using their left hands.
I awkwardly accomplish my task and go into the hallway where about a dozen people are sleeping on pads and under heavy quilts – that explains some of noise level last night. I wash up and brush my teeth at the sink out in the hall with cold water. It wakes me up quite well. I make my bed, do my meditation and prayers, and I feel great. It was so good to get a night’s sleep. I feel very refreshed. I walk over to Pole to Pole and have a tomato and cheese omelet, a bowl of honey and banana seminola porridge, and a glass of chai – an absolutely fantastic breakfast. There is a poster on the wall announcing that tonight, the millennium eve, there will be an all night puja, offerings and prayers to the Buddha, at Mahabodhi Temple. It sounds like a great way to start the new year to me.
I decide to use this morning to do research on Jataka tales. I first go to a bookstore that is associated with Mahabodhi Temple. A benefit for me is that English is still a primary written language in India due to the long occupation of the county by Britain. There I do find one small book of Jataka Tales I do not have and I buy it. I then go to the temple’s library. It definitely has the feel of a 19th century library with not even a card-catalogue system that I saw. When I first see the librarian I think it is Dustin Hoffman in disguise as an Indian. He is a strange little man and it takes me a while to build some communication with him, but once we get going he is most helpful. I sit at the table and mark stories in books that I want to copy and he rushes from one case to another finding more possible sources for me. By the time we are finished I have quite a pile of photocopying to be done. He says I can pick them up tomorrow at about noon. I do some scouting around and find a little locked up bookstore associated with the Mahabodhi Society. I try to get it opened up and it turns into quite an ordeal. The person who is supposed to open it doesn’t want to and finally a man in a nearby office does it for me. He doesn’t know what they have so I simply start browsing. To my amazement I come upon a huge two-volume set of Jataka Tales – it is the mother lode. The thousands of pages contain what appears to be new versions of all the stories I have found and additional ones as well. I am excited! The man cannot find a price for the books anywhere and asks me to come back in two hours.
I decide to go to the bank and exchange some traveler’s checks for rupees fearing I might be short of funds for the books. The first exchange I did in the airport at Mumbai took about ten minutes. I walk, or should I say squeeze, into the bank through a strange metal gate that is chained open just enough to let you wiggle through. It is as if I have entered a Franz Kafka story. After much confusion and no help on where to go I find myself in a very long cue of numb-faced, stunned tourists. There are endless lines and forms to fill out. The men at the bank — and yes they are all men — are almost comically rude and indifferent. They take away all our passports and traveler’s checks and we have to form another cue with our little metal numbers and wait to be called. After a two hour process and at least a dozen power outages, I am called to the window. The glaring man thrusts a wad of rupee notes and my passport at me. I take them and in my sweetest voice possible I say “Happy New Year.” He is stunned. He looks up and smiles and says, “Happy New Year.” The tourists in the never-ending cue all burst out laughing.
I find the entrance and squeeze out of the gate. Enough time has passed that I go back to see if I can pick up my books. The woman who is supposed to run the place is now there and finds the price for me. Both volumes combined are 450 rupees – a little over $10.00. They would be ten times that in the United States if you could find them, which is unlikely.
I decide to do a little shopping on my way back to the room and I pick up a little carved stone Buddha head for Sammy’s altar at home, some prayer beads for both of us, and a knit scarf and cap in anticipation of a cold evening at the puja tonight. I rest at the room and eat some fruit for lunch. I then pack up my painting gear and head out for Mahabodhi Temple. At the temple I settle in and do two sketches. I have quite an audience but I’m getting more comfortable with the situation and enjoy talking with such a variety of people. The sketches go well and I pack up early to go to the temple office to pick up a pass for the puja tonight. Back at my room I rest a bit and go for dinner at Pole to Pole. I have no idea what I’m ordering but as always, it is great. I dress as warmly as possible for the evening putting my flannel pajamas on under my clothes and layering up as much as possible. It is already cool.
I arrive at about 6:30 p.m. and position myself and my cushion back away from where the monks are gathering. In no time at all the monks spread back to me and I’m joined by two very pleasant Australians. There are thousands upon thousands of candles burning on the stupas and walls, marigold garlands are draped everywhere. A tremendously elaborate altar with offerings is set up under the spreading branches of the Bohdi Tree. The monks begin chanting with incredibly beautiful musical accompaniment, one of the most heavenly flutes I have ever heard. It is absolutely magical. I meditate and sway with the sound. To my surprise a monk sitting next to me nudges me. He points down on the ground in between us where a rat has been caught in this maze of sitting people. No one is a bit alarmed and the rat doesn’t seem too bothered either. One of the Australians wonders if the rat was a monk in a previous life. My mind goes to the Jataka Tales I have read where the Buddha was a rat in previous lives. Maybe this rat is a Buddha to be.
By 8:30 p.m. my knee is giving me a good deal of pain. My guest house also locks its gate at 10:00 p.m.. Which means if I’m not back by then, I’m out all night – not this old-timer. I quietly make my way out of the sea of chanting and meditating people. What a sight it is. What an incredibly beautiful way to bring in a new millennium,. What a fortunate person I am! With my leg pain I get a rickshaw to take me back to guest house. What a day it has been. I do feel a bit confused. The town is filthy, there is garbage everywhere, the poverty is overwhelming, the animals are in terrible condition, the pollution is choking – I can’t figure why I like it here so much, but I most certainly do.
January 1, 2000
I sleep well again and wake at 5:30 a.m. I wash up and feel I’m getting better at the balancing needed on the toilet. I begin my meditation and prayers but then things get too noisy and I abandon them. I was quite cold all night and into the morning. Heating seems to be entirely unheard of here. I breakfast at Pole to Pole. It is excellent but I have so much steam rising from the food that I can’t keep my glasses from being constantly fogged. The Buddha Hippies are there, of course. They are such a kick to watch, so cool. Nearly all smoke cigarettes and it seems they all have colds.
I return to my room and review the books I purchased yesterday – what a find. Losang, the kind monk who befriended me when I came, is at the door with more hot buttered and salted Tibetan tea. I invite him in. He has purchased a New Year’s card for me showing the mountains of Tibet and lovingly inscribed it in his best English. We have a very nice talk. He is the attendant of an ex-abbot from a southern monastery. The abbot’s health became bad and he needed to come north in the summers when it is so hot and humid in the south. Losang’s family agreed to take the abbot in and Losang became a monk to take care of him. I don’t think I have ever met a gentler, kinder, more sensitive soul in my life. Simply to look at him makes me feel better. As a New Year’s card, I give him one of the sketches I have done of Mahabodhi Temple.
I decide it would be a good morning to visit the other temples in Bodh Gaya. Most Buddhist countries have built temples here. I begin my walk into town. The road has been barricaded by the army and soldiers are checking all vehicles coming into town. This is the main road. They let me pass. Everywhere along the road men are standing urinating. Some men seem to do so whenever and wherever the urge strikes them. Spitting also is constant, often the red juicy substance that many chew but also the frequent clearing of the nasal and throat areas and depositing the results on the road. Belching and passing gas also seems quite unrestrained and many men seem to be in frequent need to reposition their genitals in their pants. It is a bit difficult for a Westerner to get used to. There is also the much more serious sound of what I assume is tubercular hacking, a cough that has the ominous sound of coming from deep in diseased lungs.
The temples I visit are interesting, but none really grab me. I am truly mesmerized by Mahabodhi. I take quite a few photos and I feel quite touristy for the first time. To my surprise several groups of Indian tourists want their picture taken with me. One even does an audio tape interview for a school project he is working on. I’m not quite sure why I am of interest to them as there are many Westerners in Bodh Gaya. At the huge Japanese Buddha statue I forget to take my shoes off before I go up on the platform as it apparently has the same sacred standing as a temple. It causes quite a scene and I’m very embarrassed.
On my way back to the room I pick up the photocopying from the library and the librarian asks me to write a testimonial for him. It seems a common thing in India for service people to have books in which they ask satisfied customers to write favorable comments in. I’m glad to do so as he was fine help in the research. I try to get a rickshaw back to the room but the driver tries to gouge me and I walk. I have my knee brace on today so I’m not in pain, but I am getting tired.
At my room I have fruit and nuts for lunch, pack my day bag and head out for Mahabodhi. I thought the temple would be quieter today after the all-night puja. I was wrong it is even busier. I discern they are getting ready for another huge puja involving the devotees of a living Buddhist teacher. I return to same spot I sat in last night. The chanting is still going on. I set up and begin some sketching. The monks around me seem very interested. I hope I am not distracting them from their prayers and chanting. Children again surround me. They block my view and get into my stuff a bit but they are well intentioned. One Indian family watches me paint for quite a while and then one of the daughters wants my autograph. I tell her I’m not famous. She doesn’t care; she wants it anyway. I have a difficult time writing her name as when she spells, it sounds like different letters than what she wants me to write. I finally get it right and go back to my painting. I do a total of four sketches during the afternoon. Two paintings I am very pleased with, the other two are just OK. There is a little Indian street girl in a dirty yellow dress that has been watching me most of the afternoon. She wants my pencil. I give her an extra pen I have in my bag. She follows me out of the temple as I head back to the room but not all the way to my lodging. My knee is really quite painful after sitting all afternoon on my cushion. I can’t wear my knee brace when I sit.
I reach the room and collapse in my plastic chair. There is a knock at the door and there is Losang with a cup of hot buttered tea for me. It seems he is becoming my attendant also. The guest house is even louder than usual. Many children are running and yelling in the hallway. I make my way to Pole to Pole for another good meal. When I leave it is almost impossible to move in the streets. Huge buses bulging with people are coming into town. It must be some kind of festival. Things are getting very wild and loud. I decide it would be a good evening to spend in my room reading. It is unbelievably loud all around at the guest house. I put my ear plugs in at 6:30 p.m. just to try to lower the din of sound. I then notice my door moving. The hallway is absolutely jammed with people and they seem to be looking for space. I bolt the top of my door. The bottom bolt doesn’t work. Things start to get out of hand. Now people are banging on the door and pushing hard against it. It’s getting quite frightening. I see a large bent rusty nail at the bottom of the door jam and I bend it over the bottom of the door for more support. It helps some but the onslaught continues for some time. Maybe they feel my room is under utilized as most of these little rooms have four to eight people staying in them. I am basically am under siege and captive in my room. I find that you can actually bathe with “Wet Ones” and an empty water bottle can be a multi-functional vessel. Out of complete exhaustion, even amongst the chaos, I go to sleep.
I wake at 3:00 a.m. and the place is surprisingly quiet. I lay awake for some time planning a trip to a local travel agent I have read about in one of my books. I plan to ask him to schedule all the rest of my internal travel in India. I also plan to reduce my travel by about 50% of what I had originally planned. I decide to stay in Bodh Gaya for a full week of my trip but I am going to switch lodging after the experience last night. I doze off again and wake at 6:30 a.m. I successfully navigate the toilet and wash in the hallway. Just a few people sleeping here and there. I can see my breath as I wash. It seems even colder than usual. I dress as warmly as possible, including two pairs of socks which I have been wearing most of the time anyway, as in Mahabodhi you have to remove your shoes and I’m trying to only ruin one pair.
As I finish dressing the power goes off. Losang knocks at my door with tea, Tibetan bread and butter. He sees I’m in the dark and brings me a candle. In a country in which so many people have tried to take advantage of me and have been so rude, I have Losang who cannot give me enough and whose kindness warms me like an electric heater on this chilly morning. How lucky I am. I find Losang and his master are leaving this morning to continue their travels. This is another reason to find other lodgings. We chat for a while and I give Losang one of my business cards and ask him to write me some time if he would like to practice writing in English. I hope he does.
The street seems strangely calm after the wildness of last night. I walk down the street to find a phone and call Sammy. It is so good to hear her voice. It comforts me in knowing that life is waiting for me. I find there were no Y2K problems at home, my mother returned from her holiday with my sister, and my daughter, Jessica, has taken her husband, Mike, to the airport in Sioux Falls to fly to his new job in Idaho. It is good to hear that things are going smoothly at home.
I go to the Pole to Pole for some porridge. The electricity is still out everywhere. I walk down to see the travel agent. He is not open yet. I take a rickshaw to the Archeological Museum. It is still closed. I decide to check out hotels in the area. The first one is pretty upper class, armed guards and the works. It seems like too much in many ways. The next one has the lobby filled with Buddha hippies about my age. The rate is 700 rupees a night and still a bit rough but the Waldorf Astoria compared to where I’m at – a private bath with a Western toilet no less. I take it and get a rickshaw back to my old room. There is still no electricity so I pack in the dark. Gupta seems genuinely disappointed to see me leave. I tip him 50 rupees and he cheers up a bit. I take a picture of him and one of his cohorts outside the guest house. His friend then takes a picture of Gupta and me. Gupta asks me to send him a copy.
I get a rickshaw with a relatively young driver thinking that my bag and I together are pretty heavy. Off we go. About a half mile away I realize that my neck is cold. I have left my scarf and jacket hanging behind the door of my room in the dark. I ask the driver to return to the guest house. He yells to his friends along the way who watched us leave that I forgot my jacket. They laugh. I laugh. Gupta runs back in to get my coat and scarf for me and his friend comes running with my denim shirt that I also left there. Off we go again. We have one steep hill to climb to get to the new hotel and the driver gets off the bike to push the rickshaw. I get off too and help push up the hill. A middle-class Indian woman coming in a rickshaw from the other direction smiles and bows to me. I pay the driver a large fee for his efforts and get my bags to the new room. The electricity is now off here. I am feeling queasy and eat a couple oranges that seems to help. I am looking forward to taking a shower but with the power out my hot water heater isn’t working.
I go back to the travel agent, M. Shahabuddin at Middle Way Travels, and he his shop is open. He is very cordial and professional. I mention that I have read about his reputation for honesty. I figure it can’t hurt. He looks at what I have written out concerning what I would like to do and he says it’s all possible. For my first trip after I leave Bodh Gaya he can provide me with a taxi to Rajgir for 1,000 rupees, no trains or buses needed. It sounds good to me and I take it. He says he will work on the rest of the arrangements including lodging. My fate is in his hands and I feel better – my fate has not been doing too well in my hands.
I return to the hotel and have lunch at its restaurant. It’s OK but certainly not the Pole to Pole. I rest in my room for a while and feel a bit better but not 100%. I pack up my painting materials and head out for Mahabodhi. I settle in the same place as yesterday as I want to do some more sketches of the Bodhi Tree itself. This is the tree that is a direct descendant of the tree under which the Buddha sat when he reached his enlightenment. I am in a sea of chanting Tibetan monks again with a few Westerners sprinkled here and there. The little street girl in yellow finds me again and is very pesky. She wants everything. I finally put my finger to my lips to tell her to be quiet. She leaves.
As I begin my sketch a young Tibetan monk comes over and doesn’t stand and watch as they usually do. He sits down very close to me carefully watching each stroke. He pulls out a bag of popcorn and wants to share it with me. My stomach really doesn’t feel like it but I don’t want to appear rude and I eat some. After I finish my first sketch the monk pulls a worn old sketch book from his bag. He opens it to a page with a remarkably architecturally accurate ball point pen drawing of his home temple. I look at it and compliment him on his skill and return to my work. To my surprise he pulls a grade school-like set of watercolors from his bag and begins applying color to his sketch. He uses no water only moistening the brush with his saliva. I want to warn him of the health hazards involved in ingesting some pigments, but I don’t feel it’s my place. I later wish I had. I finish another sketch of the Bodhi tree that is much better than the first. My new friend tells me he became a monk when he was five years old. He is now 22. Some of his fellow monks come over and tease him a bit. I also strike up a conversation with a monk on the other side of me. He is a middle-aged Austrian who has been a monk for three years. He says he is not sure how long he will continue but that he has learned a great deal, and I am not surprised. I’ll bet. Monks are bringing around tea in huge teapots.
My Austrian friend pulls out a beautifully turned wooden bowl and receives some tea. He smells it and turns up his nose. It is sweet chai and he prefers the buttered and salted Tibetan tea. He offers his bowl to me. At first I decline, and then I accept. He assures me he doesn’t have a cold. The tea is delicious and bowl has the most wonderful tactile quality in my hands. I clean the bowl with a “Wet One” and dry it with a paper towel and return it to the Austrian with my thanks.
I find my painting companion has completed the sky on his drawing. I cut off a piece of watercolor paper from my block and give it to him. He is very excited. He takes my pencil and begins drawing Mahabodhi temple with acute accuracy. He is a natural. I finish my last sketch and decide I need to find a toilet and switch painting sites. My painting friend wants to return the pencil, and I tell him I want him to have it. He holds my hand, looks into my eyes and says, “It is so good to find such good friends.” Tears well up in my eyes. Many Westerners come to India to study with spiritual masters. That was not my intent. But I have had two wonderful teachers in the form of young monks. First Losang and now this grateful, loving young man. Both have taught me deep lessons of Buddhist virtues I hope I never forget.
I find my way to the temple latrines. If you don’t need a squat toilet the men are to go off behind the building. There you walk on broken pieces of brick in a sea of urine until you find a place. This is India.
I walk around for a while looking for another site to paint. My knee is very painful
but I really want to do one more sketch today. I find a remarkable view of a wonderful
Buddha. They seem to be painting all the Buddhas on the ground a vibrant gold as part of the celebration going on and this one has just received a fresh coat of paint. Behind the sculpture is a great Pippala tree with prayer flags and off to the right is a monk standing praying with his beads. It seems it might be a bit complex for the quick simple style I’m using but I decide to give it a try. It comes along beautifully and is one of my favorite sketches to date. But I have completely forgotten about time, being so absorbed in the painting. It is nearly dark and cold and moisture is sinking into everything, including me. I can barely walk with my painful knee, but I still feel blissful as I watch thousands of candles being lit for the evening prayer and hear the chanting rising around the grounds. But I am too chilled to stay.
I make my way back through the market outside the temple. The beggars are really starting to get to me. There are hundreds in the area. Children with incredibly twisted legs, probably caused by polio, literally throw themselves in front of you as you walk. Lepers thrust their stumps in your face, rows of filthy old ladies sit with their hands and bowls groping toward you. From my earlier experience I know you can’t give them money without being mobbed so I begin to lay another plan to carry out later. I get a rickshaw to take my weight off my knee and head back to the hotel.
I ask for another blanket to be sent to my room and it does arrive. I notice that the bed actually seems to have a sheet on it. I pull them back and see some quite disgusting stains on the bottom sheet. I decide to sleep on top of the top sheet which is less objectionable. I also notice what seems to be a foot print on my mirror. That’s a little strange. I rest a while and decide I’m not well enough to do anything this evening. I go down to the hotel restaurant for dinner. A large Indian family is eating at the table next to mine. They have a rowdy little two-year-old boy who seems to think I’m very funny looking. His parents seem worried that I will be offended. I laugh with the little boy. I am funny looking, and even more so in India. An elderly American woman sitting on the other side of me says she was watching me paint today with the young Tibetan at Mahabodhi. She says she was deeply touched by our interaction. I was deeply touched as well. She said he worked for the rest of the afternoon on the drawing.
I finish my dinner and return to my room. I desperately want to take a shower. I haven’t had one since the 28th in Mumbai. That is the longest I have gone without bathing since I was a little kid sneaking out of taking baths. The problem is that there is an open vent in my bathroom that doesn’t close making it freezing cold and there is only a trickle of hot water tonight. With my chills I decide I had better wait.
I can’t recall seeing one Westerner who doesn’t seem to have a cold. At first I thought all the Westerners and monks I saw wearing face masks were followers of Ahimsa, complete nonviolence, philosophy that requires the adherent to wear a face mask to guard against accidentally breathing in insects and killing them. Now I wonder if most aren’t trying to avoid germs and pollution. Even the Indians will often have their scarves wrapped around their mouths for protection.
The traffic situation is nearly indescribable. It makes New York City traffic seem like Redfield, South Dakota. It is complete chaos. There seem to be absolutely no rules of the road, only survival of the largest. On narrow pothole filled roads people, bicycles, rickshaws, scooters, auto rickshaws, cows, pony carts, motorcycles, taxis, buses and ever- present huge diesel trucks that seem to move everything all vie for space. Horns blare constantly. The pollution from the vehicles on the densely packed roads is overwhelming, and I’m sure there are many obnoxious smells that my poor sense of smell is sparing me. I think of Sammy’s hyper-sensitive nose and wonder how she would cope here. I also think of her tremendous empathy with animals and wonder if she could bear the suffering of those I’ve seen. I have never seen animals in worse shape. Dogs with gaping wounds, covered with bleeding rashes and almost hairless, crippled cows in the market, starving puppies on the streets and little ponies hauling enormous loads everywhere. In spite of all of this, and all I have gone through so far I’m still glad I have come. I am developing a deep spiritual relationship with Mahabodhi Temple, and the wonderful people I have met have deeply touched my heart. It is 8:30 p.m. and I’m very tired. This hotel is also noisy and I dig out the ear plugs again. I’m really getting quite used to them.
I wake at 5:00 a.m. and look around. I find that I’m in a hotel in India. It seems a real surprise to me as I have been dreaming of home. For a minute I wonder if I am actually at home dreaming that I’m in India, but then I realize, no, I am really here and all this is really happening to me. I am half asleep and half awake until 7:30 a.m.. I don’t have chills anymore but I feel quite queasy. I have a breakfast of Advil, echinacea, and Pepto Bismal chased with my last orange. I quickly realize that I should have taken Imodium, and I do. Last night was definitely my last meal in the hotel restaurant. I decide I must brave the shower cold or not. To my delight I find that this morning I have hot water and pressure. I bask in the shower and feel warmer than I have in a week. I wash my hair twice, shave the stubble off my neck and clean my teeth. I feel much better. As I’m getting dressed I notice that the floors are actually marble in the room – signs of past glory. But I also notice that the marble is infested with swarms of tiny insects. It is impossible to be alone in India. I seem to find quite a few “no’s” in Indian hotels — you have no heat, no towels, no wash clothes, no toilet paper, no facial tissue and no wastebaskets (if you don’t have a basket you can’t make waste, I guess.) I do feel considerably safer here than at my last lodgings even though the door is locked with an archaic skeleton key and my inside bolt doesn’t work.
I decide to walk down a way from the hotel to see if I can find a place for some breakfast. I stop to call Sam and let her know about my new lodging. I try and try but I can’t get an open line to the United States. I find another tent restaurant called Maietra (loving kindness). I figure that it must be all right with a name like that. It has a dirt floor but I’m a little let down with the lack of spiders. I order a bowl of banana and honey porridge. I wait quite a while but that is to be expected. A man brings the porridge out to me and then stands there to watch me eat it. I take a bite and he says, “Is it good?” I say it is and thank him. He then tells me it’s the first time he has ever made it as the cook doesn’t come in until 10:00 a.m. It is warm and filling. I hope it sits well. I eat for a while then my “cook” comes back and sits down with me. We chat a bit and he tells me how corrupt the government is here in the state of Bihar and how the rich keep getting richer and the poor, keep getting poorer. He says that rich men feed their pets milk when poor people’s babies die for the lack of it. He says the poverty is much worse in the countryside than in Bodh Gaya. He is a LSW (Labor, Welfare, and Social Welfare) student at a nearby university. He offers to take me into the countryside and show me his university. I tactfully decline, partially because I don’t know if I could stand to see worse poverty than what is here, and also because of the lingering distrust I have developed of people here.
I decide to do a little gift shopping this morning. Everyone, men and women, here are wrapped in shawls and I would like to brings some home as gifts. I have several times passed a special section called the Tibetan Refugee Market but never stopped in. I walk the market several times paying special attention to shawls with embroidery, as Sammy uses this a great deal in her artwork, and I would like to bring home some examples of Indian embroidery for her. I finally settle on one booth and the woman spreads out many shawls for me to see, all with embroidery elements. They are a bit flawed in the fabrics and obviously machine stitched but they do have a real charm to them. I decide on three that I would like. She says they are 150 rupees each. I say fine. Her mouth drops open. Everyone here bargains for a final price. But we are talking about three and half dollars a piece for the shawls which seems more than reasonable to me. She wraps them up and away I go. On my way out I see one more shawl that catches my eye as something Sammy might like and I purchase that one, too, with a similarly amazed salesperson with a very large smile. On my way back to my room I buy some more oranges and I have oranges, peanut butter and crackers for lunch.
I pack up and head for Mahabodhi for an afternoon of painting. My stomach seems to have settled down now. The puja is still going on at the Bodhi Tree side of the temple. I set up back a ways from the monks and do a sketch of the main temple with a palm tree in front. It’s OK. I then notice a lone brilliant hibiscus flower on a bush next to me. I do a very simple sketch of the blossom – flat color areas with no overpainting or background with distinct white dividing lines between shape areas. I am quite pleased with it. It has a bit of a Matisse flavor to it. I move to the opposite side of the temple where a group of monks have stretched a blue plastic tarp from one of the great pippalla trees and are chanting and prayings under the shade of it.
As I set up to sketch the little street urchin in yellow shows up again. She wants my pencil, my pen, rupees. I send her away. As I am working the area is disrupted when a group of 10-year-old boys have badly upset an old monk. He is screaming and yelling at them. They run away laughing. It badly mars the mood of the temple. The boys find their way over to watch me but I am not friendly with them and send them away. As I work a group of Tibetan boy monks begin to form around me to watch the sketch develop. Then the group of chanting monks under the blue tarp that I am painting decide to take a break and they all come over to watch. I have a huge crowd around me and I can’t see my scene anymore. They are wonderfully good-natured people and I have fun talking with them. The crowd eventually dies down and I go back to work and finish the sketch. I try to keep it a bit more like the hibiscus sketch, simple and flat. I like the results. I stay where I am but shift my position 45 degrees to a view of a freshly painted statue of a crowned Buddha of the future. It has a grassy embankment behind it going up to the walkway with its prayer flags and strange vertical, fern-like trees. It’s a complex composition but I stick with the flat color approach and am very pleased with the results. I’m getting tired and my legs are quite painful. I pack up and head back to my room.
I decide that I would like to go back to the temple tonight and do my mediation there so I bundle up well, putting my pajamas on under my clothes and layering up. I stop at the Maiertra restaurant for some dinner on my way back to the temple. This time two Indian boys sit down with me, one about 12, the other around 16. Other boys gather around as well. They are full of tons of questions – including my financial standing. I can’t eat or enjoy my meal, and as suspected it comes down to the boys wanting an American “godfather” to help them. I keep things amiable and leave.
When I reach the temple I find that the big puja seems to have finally ended and the large group of monks are no longer chanting. The grounds of the temple are very covered with litter. There are no trash cans anywhere and people simply drop their refuse on the ground. Most of it will eventually be swept up. It makes it difficult walking in the dark through the garbage in your stocking feet. I make my way to my usual place and to my surprise I find an incredibly beautiful Buddha statue in an alcove. I can’t believe I have never noticed it before. It is lit by candles and a single monk is in the alcove chanting with one of the most beautiful voices I have ever heard. I put my cushion outside the alcove and do my meditation and prayers. It is literally heavenly. After my meditation I pick up my things and as I am leaving I stop to watch a group of monks lighting candles on large cement slabs to form Tibetan calligraphy with light. It is breathtakingly beautiful. It strikes me as the best performance art I have ever seen.
As I walk the high outer walkway around the temple a dog fight breaks out between the dark stupas below. It is not a dog fight like any I have every heard — it is horrific. The fight is vicious, intense and prolonged. It finally ends with a scream of pain that either indicates retreat or death. I am stunned. From the complete blissfullness of my mediation and the candle lighting to the terror and violence of the dog fight in a matter of minutes. It is the contrast of India.
I take a rickshaw back to the hotel. The driver misses my hotel. It is the third time today. I must be really botching the pronunciation of the Niranjana Hotel. I have been walking to the temple even if my leg is bothering me as it is uphill and the rickshaw drivers have to get off and push you up the hill – it’s too much for me. I’d rather walk. It’s 8:00 p. m. when I get to my room and I am exhausted. It must have something to do with whatever bug I have, but over all I don’t feel too bad. I can still do what I want to do.
I wake at 5:30am very cold under my two heavy blankets. My mind goes to the beggars sleeping on the streets under their rags. What in the human spirit can drive these people to go on day after day? It is beyond my imagination. I finally get out of bed at 8:00. There seems no reason to get up too early as nothing seems to start moving around here until 10:00 a.m. My shower is hot but lacking in pressure. It still warms me up well. I dress as warmly as I can and walk toward the temple. I try to call Sam again and all the lines to the United States are busy once more.
I take a rickshaw to the Pole to Pole for breakfast. It is well worth the 50 cent transportation charge to eat good food in peace and quiet. It should be noted that on the same road there are a total of four Pole to Pole restaurants. It is not a chain, just the original and three imitators. I eat at the “original.”
Today Siva, the owner, sits down with me and I get a quick version of his life and how he came to own the restaurant. From what I can understand he started as the night watchman for the Japanese who first owned the place and worked his way up from there. The place came up for sale and he worked a rigorous circle of jobs up to Nepal and back to make enough money to buy it. He has four children and a wife who stays at home to care for the family, as do all women in India, Siva tells me, who do not have higher education. Vinya, another Pole to Pole employee, takes people on tours to Mahkalo Cave and is taking a group this afternoon but it seems too late for me as I want to paint at the temple this afternoon. I make arrangements for him to take me tomorrow morning at 9:00 a.m. I have a bowl of my favorite porridge and an omelet – delicious. This is a great place even if the view out the back of tent is garbage, wild pigs and people urinating.
On my way back to my room I check with my travel agent to see how plans are coming for the rest of my trip. He is busy and I sit down to wait. The client he is dealing with is a very savvy Buddha hippie who can read and write Hindi. I’m impressed and he is getting help with his travel. Now I’m sure I’m doing the right thing. He also compliments the agent on his honesty. Its all quite reassuring. I mention to the agent that I read in one of the travel books that he can quote from T. S. Elliot’s Wasteland. He says he is a lapsed doctoral student writing his dissertation on T. S. Elliot. My train ticket from Patna to Varnasi is ready. It is 250 rupees and a 75 rupee agent fee. Seems fine to me, especially when compared to the last fiasco at the Patna train station. He says to stop back tomorrow for more information on the rest of the trip.
On the way back to the hotel I do a little shopping and buy two beautiful sounding Tibetan bells. The intercom between my studio and our living quarters at home broke some years ago and the bells seems a much more pleasant way that Sam and I can get each other’s attention.
Back at my room I eat a couple oranges and decide to go the Archeological Museum that I tried to visit on Sunday when I found this hotel. It is only about a block away. Across the entrance is a large metal gate with about six guards, some of them armed. I go through a rather Byzantine system of ticket purchasing and handing over of the ticket to the proper person. The guards seem to find my confusion rather amusing – hey, that’s all right with me. There is an exterior installation of a number of seated Buddhas with their heads all knocked off, probably carted back to Europe or the United States. There is also some ancient Stupa railing from what seems to be third or fourth century B.C. Maybe for the original Mahabodhi Temple, it’s hard to say as nothing is labeled. One of the seated Buddhas has the most exquisite hand reaching down to touch the ground in the gesture that the Buddha made when he pledged not to leave that spot until he reached enlightenment. I decide to take a photo of the hand for reference – wrong! A guard lets me know none too gently that there is no photography at the museum. I should have been smart enough to ask. The interior rooms of the museum consist of one moderate size room and one small room. I am rudely gestured to by a guard who lets me know the route that I am supposed to take. Fine, I can do that, but I am the only visitor in the entire museum. Traffic doesn’t seem to be a problem. The labeling system of the sculpture is mainly “Buddha” or “Tara” and occasionally an approximate date. The work seems dirty and uncared for — what a shame as there are some very fine pieces. One of the final works I look at is a third to second century BC sandstone sculpture of a man and woman. The woman has been totally demolished but the upper half of the male figure is intact and it is remarkable. It is that wonderful blend of Hellenistic Greek influence from Alexander the Great’s occupation of parts of India with indigenous Indian style. It is breathtakingly beautiful. It alone was well worth the trip to the museum. On my way out I thank the guards. They are very surprised and bow to me. I have begun taking the approach of being very polite to Indians. It seems to be very effective.
I return to my room and pack up for an afternoon of painting at Mahabodhi. On my way I stop at the bookstore and buy several books on the history of the temple. I am anxious to learn more of its history. I settle down to paint in the same place I had such a wonderful meditation last night. There are several monks in the alcove reading prayers. I set up to paint and several monks who have been observing me move over to sit by the alcove. I think they are catching on. I actually end up editing them out of the painting. The sun comes out and I gradually shed layer on layer of clothing until I’m down to my shirt sleeves. The sun does feel wonderful after being cold so much. I stick with my new flat color approach and the painting develops very well.
As I am working, a Japanese man, an American woman and a Tibetan monk come and sit down next to me. The Japanese man pulls out a sketch pad and begins a pencil portrait of the monk. I finish my sketch and get up to stretch my legs. I say hello and we strike up a conversation. In our discussion it is disclosed that I am an art teacher and he asks me to look at his drawings and give my comments. I hesitate as I know it will bring out the teacher in me, but he insists and I say yes. His girl friend is doing an excellent job translating for us. I look over his drawings and they are technically very well done. He has a delicate hatching technique with the graphite. The first thing that pops into my mind is the silver point drawing process that I taught some decades ago. It is a process of drawing with a sharpened silver wire on gessoed board that would suit the refined linear quality of his style, and the browning of the silver with age would only richen it. He is very excited about the technique and I give him all the information I can think of. I give him a general critique of his work and he seems quite amazed. He has recently graduated from a Japanese University with an art degree and is teaching part-time. He asks to see my sketches and seems genuinely impressed. He makes the perceptive comment that they are a balance between action and peace. I take the peace to be flat color washes and the action the dynamic white line that divides all areas. He wants to know how I compose my compositions the way I do, which is a good question for him because he is very object-oriented in his drawings. I give him a short lecture on composition and spatial considerations. I also try to relate the ideas to the Buddhist concepts of interrelatedness of things and necessity to give equal attention to all parts of the composition. A group of Tibetan monks who have gathered around to hear the critique nod their heads in apparent approval – it is very gratifying. I am starting to feel that this could turn into an all afternoon teaching session so I decide to move to a different location to paint. I pack up and the Japanese man is tremendously appreciative for my input, with much deep bowing to the point of my feeling a bit embarrassed. I give him one of my cards and tell him to contact me some time. He just might.
I slowly walk around the temple grounds and come upon a wonderfully gnarled pipalla tree. With all the complex textural qualities I know I will have to go back to some over painting to get some surface qualities. The sketch goes very quickly and smoothly, just a few children and monks watching occasionally. The sketch comes out well and I place it beside the flat color sketch done previously. They are both successful but I think I still prefer the flat approach. I pack up and head back my room.
I bundle-up well with my pajama layers in anticipation of another evening meditation at the temple. I stop at a Tibetan restaurant I have noticed for a change of pace. I walk in and the first bad sign is that no one is there. The second bad sign is that rap music is playing on the tape player — too many bad signs for me. I walk out and the employees are yelling at me. I don’t care. I keep on walking and get a rickshaw to Pole to Pole. Siva gives me a royal welcome and sits down with me. I order fried potatoes with onions and garlic and spinach and tomato pakora. It is wonderful, but I overeat. I give the cook my usual compliments and off I go. To my surprise there are no rickshaws anywhere to be found — very unusual for this end of town. I put my knee brace over the top of my pants. I’m not overly concerned about visual appearances. I also wrap my scarf around my face to keep some of the road dust out of my lungs, and I begin my walk toward the temple. There are long stretches of the road where it is pitch black. In one of these stretches I make out the silhouette of one of the most crippled beggars dragging himself along the path with his arms. I see this as an opportunity to give him some money without being mobbed by other beggars. As I fumble in my pockets for a bill I somehow catch my scarf with my watch and give my head a sharp jerk. I finally find a bill. I have no idea what size and give it to the beggar. I walk along for quite a distance and finally reach a street light. I notice that my eyes feel strange. I then realize that I do not have my glasses on. I panic. Somehow I managed to lose them without realizing it back with the beggar. I grope around in my bag and find my little flashlight and make my way back to where I think I was. After a short search I do find the glasses undamaged. I must have a bit of good karma working for me. As I am walking another pitch black stretch of road, a motorcycle screams up and stops directly in front of me giving me quite a start. It is Gupta giving a monk a ride somewhere. He is very happy to see me and we chat a while. I finally make it to Mahabodhi and decide to meditate in the same spot as last night. To my disappointment I find that there seems to be a private puja going on in the alcove and they have stretched a blue plastic tarp across the entrance. Oh well, I simply back up a bit and turn 45 degrees to a stupa with a beautifully lit Buddha and Bodhisatva (a Buddhist saint) and an elderly monk sitting by it reading prayers aloud – very nice indeed. I sit back a ways so as not to not disturb the monk and begin my meditation and prayers. My leg is hurting quite a bit but as the meditation deepens the pain disappears. The atmosphere is lovely and I feel so at peace. When I have finished I quietly pick up my stuff. The old monk takes a break at the same time. I place my hands together and give him a little bow. He gives me a big smile and does the same.
On my through the market I buy a kilo of oranges and see that my travel agent is still at work in his little store front. I find a young rickshaw driver to take me back to the hotel. This one is a bit too young. He is still enough of a boy to like to go very fast downhill. It is quite a ride home. I must remember – not too young. I get ready for bed and work on my journal. My throat seems to have been getting progressively worse throughout the day. I do hope it doesn’t get out of control. I have a very busy day planned for tomorrow. It will be my last in Bodh Gaya.
I wake at 3:30 a.m. and half sleep until 6:00 a.m. when I have my alarm set for. It doesn’t go off. Getting extra batteries for it was one of those little things that didn’t get done before I left. As soon as I get up the electricity goes off. I dig out the candle that Losang gave me. I feel good simply lighting it and remembering him. I clean up and the electricity comes back on. I eat a couple oranges and take my vitamins and pack my bag for painting today. My first plan for my last day here is to buy a bunch of warm Tibetan bread in the market and distribute it to beggars for their breakfast as small token of empathy. I arrive at the market and find two charming Tibetans selling their still-warm bread. I buy all they have and put it into a large plastic bag. I begin handing it out and it goes pretty well. I then notice that beggars I have already given a piece to are slipping back into line for a second. A Tibetan monk who has been watching is getting a good laugh, and I do too. I move to another area of the market that I know hasn’t received any bread. But trouble follows. Many of the beggars to whom I have already given bread follow me and start grabbing the bread out of my hands and ripping it up and getting violent with each other. They then rip the entire bag from my hand and it is chaos. When it is gone they press around me with their hands groping and crushing in on me. I say, “No!” very loudly and they back off. Other bread sellers want to sell me more bread but I am badly shaken from the incident and just want to get out of there. I walk slowly to the Pole to Pole lamenting my American stupidity. I hope the rest of my day goes better than this start. I am definitely feeling queasy again.
At the Pole to Pole I have a bowl of milk and rice porridge and wait for Vinya to take me to the cave temple. It is the site where the Buddha and five ascetics, renouncers, spent six years practicing austerities and self mortification to try to find their way to understanding the truth. It is the site from which the Buddha came when Sujata, a village girl, found him collapsed and dying and fed him, milk and rice porridge (I really hadn’t thought of that before I ordered breakfast) and saved him. He stayed in this area and did find enlightenment following the middle path – no self mortification – no self luxuries.
Vinya shows up a bit late but ready to take me. It is six kilometers by bus and then six kilometers walking. I know it is stupid to do with my knee problem, but I have my brace on and hope for the best. The bus is late and Papu wants to take us on his motor scooter. Well, OK, I haven’t been on a motor bike since I had one when I was 15 years old. Somehow all three of us fit on the bike, and it can still go extremely fast. We are weaving all over between rickshaws, pony carts, bikes and people and being furiously passed by taxis and faster motorcycles. This road is made of broken bricks set in asphalt. It is unbelievably bumpy. The scooter seems to have no shocks or springs whatsoever and my porridge is getting a very thorough re-mixing. Vinya turns to me and asks if I’m OK. I say OK. My stomach is not OK.
The countryside around the city is very bleak. It looks overgrazed and barren. When we get out a ways some diked fields appear, and it starts looking a bit better. We finally reach our stopping point to go on foot and have a cup of chai at a grubby little stand before we go overland. After the scooter leaves, Vinya points to a mostly dried up river and says we need to wade across it to get to where we are going. This was news. At first I think about heading back to town, but then I reconsider and go for the adventure of it. The river is mid-calf deep at most, the water clear and bottom sandy. It is difficult walking for my knee but I make it across. On the other side we are following a foot path. No vehicle can get to the villages we pass. It is incredibly beautiful countryside, such wonderful textures, and trees, and the peasants are very colorful in their dress.
The path we are following narrows until we are just walking on the little dikes between the fields. Vinya describes the various crops that are planted and the rotation system used. Men physically scoop water from the river into the irrigation channels. Men and oxen plow the fields. It couldn’t have been that much different when the Buddha walked this route in the other direction some two and a half millennia ago. I am so enthralled with the scenery that I fall off the foot-wide dike occasionally and Vinya is a bit worried about me.
It is a long walk but my leg is holding out well. I see the mountain in front of us that the cave is in and I ask Vinya how far up the mountain the cave is. He says not far. I certainly hope not. When we reach the bottom of the mountain there is a very nice children’s Buddhist school. It is named after Sujata, the savior of the Buddha, and Vinya tells me it was built by the Koreans. I see the children in their bright uniforms and hear them chanting their lessons. It is a very encouraging scene that is unfortunately soon replaced with a view of the ascent to the cave. It is a long steep stepped path and on both sides it is completely lined with beggars. It is unbelievable. Men sell bags of coins or candy to give to the beggars as you go up the path. I refuse to foster the lifestyle. As I climb the path the beggars yell and grab at me. One filthy old woman thrusts a two-year-old baby at me to try to get me to give her money. I want to grab that child and run with her and take her away to a better life — but I don’t. I pick up my pace trying to get through this hellish gauntlet. My leg is hurting but I can’t stand this. When I reach the top I’m exhausted.
The temple is run by a small group of Tibetans and they expect money as well, which I give. I make my way to the cave and it is a very small space. Only about three or four people can crawl in at a time. I wait my turn and enter. I am nearly knocked over by the heat. Hundreds of candles have been lit by pilgrims generating a temperature that must be well over 100 degrees. There are two sculptures of the skin-and-bones Buddha after his six years of self-deprivation. I say a short prayer thanking the Buddha for abandoning this foolish path and finding the Middle Way of moderation. I crawl out and Vinya shows me a prayer room nearby. In it is an exquisite tangka painting of the Buddha. It is so delicate in its color and detail. I am tempted to take a photo of it but I know my flash would not be good for its color so I refrain. I look around for a place to do a sketch but don’t really find one I like, so I decide to brave the route down. It is easier now because the beggars know I didn’t give on the way up and I can walk faster going down.
At the bottom of the hill one of the teachers from school is holding his class of five- and six-year-olds outside. It is an English-language class. Vinya guides me over in that direction. The teacher stops the class and they all rise and bow to me. He invites me to sit in a chair in the front of the class. I accept and tell him that I am a teacher, too. He asks one of the students to come up to me and bring her book. I think she is a “ringer.” I go through the entire A-Z book with her and she is amazing. She has every letter, word and description memorized in that entire book. I don’t know if she comprehends what she is saying but she is so sweet. I have a very good time with her. The teacher says that the beggar children on the mountain should be down here in school. I certainly agree. Then comes the inevitable request for money. I gladly give him 100 rupees. Even if it ends up in his pocket it is still well spent. I give him my card and ask him to have information sent to me if there is a foundation to help support the school.
I decide not to paint. It is getting late and I want to sketch at Mahabodhi this afternoon. I do decide to do a considerable amount of photography on the way back as the landscape has much potential as environments for my Buddhist animal wisdom story paintings. It is a most enjoyable walk.
When we reach the river there is much more activity going on. Some people are washing clothes, some getting water and many crossing the river as we are. As we go across we are encircled by a large group of young Indian men. They are obviously talking about the Westerner struggling to get across the river. They seem a bit hostile. I turn and smile at them and give a little bow. It seems to put them at ease. This polite thing is a winner. We wait for the bus for some time at the little roadside stand. Finally Vinya stops a friend passing with another scooter and, yes, we ride back to town three on the motor bike. This one has better shock absorbers and the driver is very skillful. Back at Pole to Pole I have a sandwich for lunch and write in Vinya’s testimonial book for him. I then say my goodbyes to the crew at Pole to Pole as I don’t intend to return tonight. I stop at my travel agent to see if he has more information for me. He hasn’t but I exchange some dollars for rupees with him. It’s much easier than going through that incredible process at the bank. The agent ask me to return tonight after 8:00 p.m. and he will have more information for me. I go across the street to the temple to paint.
I decide to try one more painting of the main stupa. It doesn’t go well. At first I blame it on the many interruptions, but then I realize the problem is that I can’t focus well. My mind is swimming with the events of the morning and I can’t get into the present moment which is needed to make a sketch work. A really cute little Tibetan monk about nine or ten years old and his teacher or supervisor come over and sit with me. The young monk’s English is excellent and we have a very enjoyable chat. After a while he asks me if I’ve seen the film Kundun, a biography of the early life of the present Dalai Lama. I say that I certainly have and that I enjoyed it very much. The boy says, “I was the second Dalai Lama in the film.” I do a double take and sure enough he was the actor. He goes on to tell me of his three trips to New York City for filming and interviews and about his good buddy the director, Martin Scorsese. His mother now lives and works in New York and his father works for UNESCO in India. He is a real character. I tell him that I think it’s more important to be a good monk than a good actor. He says he agrees, but I’m not sure he buys it. A little Indian boy who watched me paint for a long time now comes back after an absence. He has a sketch he has done of the temple in pencil but in a style similar to mine. I compliment and encourage him. I then move to the last location I want to paint at the temple. It is the only large pipalla tree on the temple grounds that I have not painted yet. It has a wonderfully twisted trunk. There is a large group of monks and Westerners doing full body prostrations under the tree who look at me a bit funny as I sit down and set up to paint. I settle in and except for a few observers I have few interruptions and the sketch goes quite smoothly. As I am finishing, a young Westerner comes over and sits down with me for a talk; the first Westerner all week. He is a very nice young man who has just graduated from a university in the United States with a degree in religious studies. His plans are to bum around India and Nepal for as long as his money holds out, studying and learning.
I pack up and head back to the hotel. On the way I do bit more gift shopping for friends back home and pick up a variety of wonderful little seated Buddha figures. I rest for a little while and get ready for dinner and my evening meditation. I decide that I would like my last meal in Bodh Gaya to be at the Café Om a rather famous Tibetan restaurant I have read about in my guide books. I have tried to find it before and failed. This time I stick with it, and, after going though at least a dozen other Tibetan restaurants, I find it. It is cleaner than Pole to Pole but also full of Buddha hippies. I order some vegetable soup and a fried potato dish. The soup is wonderful in the freshness of the vegetables and the exotic variety but the broth is a bit flat and I perk it up with some salt and pepper. The second dish is a real treat, potatoes and strange vegetables in delicious sauce topped with a tangy grated cheese. They have a table where you serve yourself cake. The cakes are baked and cut like pies and there is a large variety, banana, carrot, coconut and others. I have the carrot and it is marvelous. I am tempted to have a second piece when I remember my talk of moderation this morning with the emaciated Buddha sculpture in the cave.
I make my way to the temple. I have also been planning a special meditation for my final day at Mahabodhi. The Bodhi Tree is encircled by a high marble fence that creates an inner sanctum around the base of the tree. It also encloses the Vajrasila, the red sandstone slab that marks the spot on which the Buddha sat when he reached enlightenment. This slab is also used as a kind of altar on which pilgrims leave offerings, personal puja, to the memory of the Buddha and his teachings. There is also enough space in the enclosure to sit back against the wall and meditate if you wish. I make my way into this wonderful sacred space and I leave a sketch that I did of the Bodhi Tree on the first day of the new millennium with an orange in front of it on the Vajrasila. I back up and sit on my cushion a few feet from the spot where the Buddha found the truth and under a descendant of the tree under which he sat. I do my meditation and prayers and feel deeply moved. I complete my prayer with a short prayer done with my forehead touching the sandstone slab, which is traditional. On my way out I touch the roots of the great tree and say another short prayer. It is a perfect ending to my week in this remarkable place. I will truly miss it. It is permanently placed in my heart.
I slowly leave the temple and find my way to the travel agent’s store front. He and one of his colleagues are still working on my scheduling. Lodging in Sarnath is full so they have booked me a room in Varanasi, just a few kilometers to the south. The agent asks me to pay a 750 rupee charge to cover pick up at the rail station at Varanasi and transportation to the airport to get to Agra. It seems steep to me but after considering the chaos of both places, I go for the stability of having some guidance. My lodging in Agra hasn’t been figured out yet but the agent who will pick me up at the airport will let me know what has been arranged then. This is definitely getting more expensive than my original “budget” travel I had planned, but the agents assure me the hotels will take my credit card. All the arrangement have been made to take me to Rajgir tomorrow and my taxi driver is there and is introduced to me. He seems very pleasant and he walks back toward my hotel with me. He asks me what I have most enjoyed about Bodh Gaya. Without hesitation, I say Mahabodhi Temple. He says, “Ah, Mahabodhi, she is the mother to all of us here in Bodh Gaya.”
At the hotel I ask if it would be better to check out tonight rather than early in the morning as there is rarely anyone around at that time. They say, definitely, yes. The sign says they take credit cards and I pull mine out to pay the bill. The clerk looks at the card with a sense of terror in his eyes. Three clerks and a half an hour later I think the charge has been accomplished. They added 5% to the bill for their efforts – fine. The saints only know how this is going to show up on my bill back in South Dakota.
I go up to my room and shower and shave and begin to pack. There is a knock at my door and a voice that says, “Telephone.” Telephone? Well, I could see two primary possibilities. First, there is a major crisis at home. Second, I will be mugged when I open the door – there is no peep hole or chain on the door to check. The first possibility is too compelling, I open the door. There stands a boy with a cordless phone in his hand. My heart sinks, a crisis. I take the phone and say, “Hello.” A voice on the other end says, “Who is this?” I say, “Mark McGinnis, I’m an American.” The voice says that he doesn’t want to talk to me and to give him back to the operator. I look at the boy standing in my doorway and think he must be the operator, so I hand him the phone and close the door. India is making me paranoid.
I don’t get to bed until after midnight. I set the $3.00 alarm clock I bought at the market and hope that it works. I tested it once and it actually did. I look around me and see the mosquitoes are doing their usual gathering on the walls before I turn out the light. I douse myself with repellent and go to sleep. What a day it has been.
The day starts well as my alarm does go off only five minutes late. I have been lying awake for an hour. The driver is already waiting when I get a porter to lug my huge duffel bag down three flights of stairs. I try to give him a hand as it is getting quite heavy with all the books and stone sculpture I have been buying. We load up the taxi and off we go. On the outskirts of town we stop at a gas station to fuel up for the trip. I’m quite taken aback by the place because it actually looks like a gas station. Everything else in India is different. All aspects of housing, commerce and transportation are completely unfamiliar, and then this gas station that looks like it could be a gas station in a rural South Dakota town — strange. The tank is full and off we go. The road gets progressively worse until it seems impassable. I don’t think I would take my four-wheel drive pickup down this road. I am so glad I didn’t eat breakfast. I am tossed and thrown around the back seat until I am ill. My head often meets the ceiling of the taxi. I reach the point where I make a conscious effort to try to relax my body and let it absorb the impact of the ride naturally as I can feel such tension building in my muscles. It works to an extent but I still tense up from time to time. We are traveling at the time of the morning during which many country people are out in the ditches and fields defecating. They all carry their little stainless steel bowls of water to wash themselves with. I am really getting quite accustomed to such sights now. The only place the road seems to improve is through villages and towns so the driver speeds up incredibly there, constantly honking his horn. A woman carrying a baby loses her balance and nearly falls in front of the taxi trying to flee our rush through a town. I am horrified. The incident actually slows the driver down for a little while. I remember reading in one of my books that traffic accidents account for the largest number of tourist deaths in India each year. It is certainly believable to me.
None of the countryside is as lovely as the isolated region that Vinya and I walked through yesterday. We rush through one dusty village and standing by the road is the most stunning woman. She is dressed in a gorgeous red and gold sari. Her features are classic Indian beauty. She looks exactly like Radha, the consort of Krishna. Maybe that is who she is returning after an amorous night with the blue-skinned god of love. She is certainly like an apparition, but she is real, I think.
There seem to be many brick-making establishments along our route, some very large scale, some very small. At one point we cross a large river that is very low right now in the dry season. Down the river we can see a large temple. The driver says it is a Vishnu temple. The low river by the temple is full of hundreds of devotees, doing their morning ritual bathing. Many of the villages and towns we pass through have at their edge a large sculpture of Hanuman, the monkey warrior from the great Indian epic, the Ramayana. He is a protector of the village through his courage and bravery.
As we approach Rajgir the landscape changes. Rocky hills and then mountains break the horizon. Rajgir was a prosperous capital of the region during the Buddha’s life. He spent time here during his search for the truth and then established here one of his first monasteries after his enlightenment. We finally reach Rajgir. It has taken two and half hours to drive about 50 miles from Bodh Gaya. I am exhausted. Rajgir is just as dirty and trash covered as all the towns we passed through to get here. We reach Hotel Siddharth where my agent has booked a room for me, which might be considered clean by some standards — but not by mine. It is quite a large room and has a private toilet and shower. When they see I’m a Westerner they actually bring me a wastebasket and what appears to be toilet paper. The manager is really quite friendly and helpful.
My taxi driver from Bodh Gaya is supposed to find me a reliable taxi driver to take me to Varanasi on the January 9. He leaves for a while and comes back and says he has found someone to do it for 1300 rupees. It seems steep but it is about 80 miles on what is supposed to be better roads. I say OK. He says that I am to pay him now, in advance. I say no. That is all that is said. He leaves. I make arrangements for my hotel manager to find a taxi to take me. I hope it works out. I talk to the manager a bit about some of the places I am looking forward to visiting in Rajgir. He points across the road and says, “That is Venuvana.” Venuvana is the famous bamboo grove where the Buddha had his rainy season retreat for his monks during the early years of his teaching. He presented some of his most important Dharama talks (sermons) there. I am delighted to find it so close by. Before I go over I decide to walk the half mile to a restaurant where I can finally get a bite to eat. I am an obvious point of attention in town. I have seen no other Westerners here at all. I order a masala omelet. I have heard that masala was spicy. It is not only spicy but it makes all Mexican food I have eaten seem quite tame. It is good but WOW! I make my way back to the hotel and pack up for a possible afternoon of painting.
I walk across to Venuvana. It is very well designed and quite well kept. I remember the hotel manager telling me it is managed by the Japanese. It has a large central pond and at one end sits a ten foot high Japanese-style seated Buddha with a gilded head. Gardens flank the pond with roses and an interesting variety of trees, but best of all, on both ends are bamboo groves. I stroll the grounds and enjoy the environment. Before I start to paint I decide to walk behind the garden where there is supposed to be an impressive temple also built by the Japanese. I find the temple and it is nice, but, again, I really can’t get excited about the foreign temples I have seen here. I start my walk back to the garden. On my way I encounter a large group of young men in uniforms who are walking toward me. They seem delighted to see me. They all want to shake my hand, si I shake theirs. Then a group of them wants their picture taken with me which I consent to and have them take one with my camera as well. I do think this is a bit weird. They all go to a large military school in the city.
I find my way back to the garden and to the bamboo which I am excited to paint. I get settled in and the next thing I know the sun is setting and I have six sketches laying around me. What fun! Bamboo is perfect for the quick spontaneous style I have been developing on this trip. The park has been relatively quiet. I have some people watching including a couple of very pesky Indian boys and two equally pesky geese who were so sneaky in trying to get into my painting supplies. One of grounds women saw them bothering me and came and chased the birds away. While my last watercolor is drying I make my way over to the large Buddha sculpture and do my evening meditation. I draw a bit of crowd doing that as the only other people I have seen with any devotional attitude to the statute were Tibetan monks. I finish, pack up, and head back to the hotel. I bundle up before going for dinner. It is really getting cold.
Dinner is lack luster but warm. I head back to the hotel for some rest. I am tired and my throat has been growing progressively worse all day. The rooms of the hotel are built around an open courtyard and each room has an open hole in the wall about 12” X 8” on the upper outer and inner walls. I’m sure this makes for better ventilation and cooling during the hot summer months but now it is maintaining a 40-degree temperature in my room. I get an extra blanket from the manager, put on as many layers of clothing as possible, and go to bed. The sheets are quite stained but I think they are clean. I really can’t tell or, to be honest, care for that matter; I am so tired. I am glad I brought my own pillowcase along. That has really helped. There is a TV in the lobby that is blaring as loud as possible and it fills my room with noise. I put in my ear plugs once again and fall asleep.
I wake often in the night from the cold but do manage to get back to sleep. I can’t figure out why I’m so cold with these three very heavy blankets. I can barely roll over under them. It must be the dampness of the cold. Everything always feels a bit damp, including the sheets. When I decide to get up at about 8:00 a.m. I remove my ear plug to hear quite a rural environment. Children are playing, birds are singing, and roosters are crowing – very nice. I wash with cold water but don’t have the courage to take my clothes off to shower. I head down to the lobby as I think I remember the manager telling me I could get an omelet in the morning. I order one and some chai and wait. The chai comes but the omelet never shows up. It turns out they don’t serve food anymore.
There is a young man at the sales desk who wants to show me some necklaces. He shows me one that is a continuous string or irregular garnets. I can visualize it around Sammy’s neck. I buy it. I do miss her. I have a chat with the manager and mention to him that I want to go to Nalanada tomorrow, a town a few kilometers away that is famous for its ruins of ancient Buddhist monasteries and universities. It was part of the high point of Buddhist culture in India during the fifth through the tenth centuries. The manager says there is a tour bus that goes there twice a day and tells me where I can go to buy a ticket. It sounds good to me and I start off in the direction that he pointed. After a while I realize I must have taken a wrong fork in the road and double back and get on the right track. The area I’m headed into is a very noisy market area with dust and fumes that overwhelm me. While basic transportation in Bodh Gaya was the bicycle rickshaw here it is the pony cart, due to the hills. In this market there is a huge number of them and they seem very agitated with each other. There is a marked decrease in beggars here compared to Bodh Gaya. I would guess because of the lack of Westerners and pilgrims.
I find the office I’m looking for and buy a ticket for the bus. It seems pretty straight forward. They will pick me up at my hotel at 1:10 tomorrow afternoon and they will have me back by 6:30 p.m. I walk around for a while looking for some oranges to buy. It seems to be a town without fruit. I decide to stop at the Tourist Bungalow Restaurant for a late breakfast. It is a huge old colonial style building that is very quiet. I find the eating place and no one is in it. Again, that is when I should have left but didn’t, as I was surrounded by young men who put me at a table. There seems to be a consistency of groups of young men that hang around all businesses. They seem to be in their late teens and early twenties and somehow loosely employed or associated with the business. They really don’t seem to do much other than be there. If there is any real work that needs to be done such as cleaning or the constant sweeping that mainly kicks up billows of dust it is always done by children between the ages of six and twelve.
I order mineral water, chai, bread-butter-jam, and eggs pokara. Papu at the Pole to Pole had fixed me a variety of pokara dishes that were all good. My mineral water comes with a dirty glass, my bread comes with a subtle dash of butter and jam, and I wait and wait and wait for the eggs. I am ready to leave when they finally arrive. What I have in front of me is a plate with six halves of hard boiled eggs that have then been battered and deep fried. My wait was undoubtedly because they first had to boil the eggs and then deep fry them as well. It is served with that marvelous all purpose mild tomato sauce I have had many times. I clean my fork with a “Wet One” and dig in. They are really very good. I pay my bill and head back to the hotel.
As I reach the hotel I here the Islamic call to prayer being amplified throughout the town – a live voice and very beautiful at that. I decide to rest for a while before heading out for Gridhrakuta, also called Vultures Peak. It is another famous teaching site of the Buddha only about six kilometers from here. I take some vitamins and some Advil to try to stop the pain in my knee. My stomach starts to churn. I eat a few of my cherished American crackers and peanut butter and my stomach seems to settle down and I decide to head out. I negotiate with a pony cart driver and we settle on 50 rupees to take me there. The drivers around seem to think that that is a very nice price (for the driver). It is also a very nice ride compared to the taxi, with a relaxed pace and pleasing scenery. We reach an entrance and it is a very long road with neatly groomed trees and hibiscus bushes in bloom. When we reach the actual entrance it turns back into the usual conditions with garbage, booths and hustlers. To reach the actual peak you take a chair lift. I have always been very apprehensive about heights and this chair lift looks as if it has its origins in the colonial period. But I have come this far and I decide to go for it. The chair lift runs on a continuous loop which means it doesn’t stop. You have to jump onto a moving chair to get on, which I do and maneuver my bags around and get my lap bar in place. My fears are not lessened as I rise out of the loading area and see a pile of broken cable below me. The chairs jerk over each pylon as if they are going to fall off the cable. People coming down in the other direction are either terrified or are nervously happy and many begin greeting me. I think some are saying, “Hello, Uncle!” I don’t know if it’s my graying beard that gives me that distinction or if I’m so obviously American it relates to “Uncle Sam.”
I make it to the top and successfully jump out of my car with my bags. there is still a lot of garbage strewn about until I get to the gate that lets me into the grounds. Once again the Japanese are here. They have built a magnificent stupa called Santi Stupa on the top of the peak. It was a project of a Japanese follower of Mahatma Gandhi’s who built a series of such stupas dedicated to world peace. It is quite a stunning brilliant white with four golden statues of the Buddha from different periods of his life on the four outer sides of the stupa. The grounds must have been equally impressive at one time with gardens, ponds and fountains. But now the ponds are dry and the fountains are no longer working. It is still fairly clean.
I walk the grounds for a while and then select a view of the stupa with trees in the foreground to sketch. It is very quiet for quite a while and then a large group of the boys from the military school show up and it is quite the opposite. A few of them recognize me from yesterday and we are old friends now. The sketch goes OK. I turn 90 degrees in my place and do a view of the mountains looking out from Vulture’s Peak. It goes very well. It’s beginning to get late but I really want to do one more sketch. I look around and see a place down the mountain that would be ideal for another watercolor. The problem is that to get there one needs to take a very steep path with no railing. My leg is hurting badly and I restrain myself. I know I will regret it as that sketch will be in my head and not on paper. I make my way back to the chair lift. I thought the trip down would be easier but I was wrong. As I look down into the woods below me I see people collecting herbs and the ever-present half-wild dogs looking for anything. At the bottom I stop and rest and have a cup of chai before I go.
As I negotiate for a pony cart to take me back, a large group of the military students come out and get ready to walk back. A group of them wants to get on the cart with me. My driver and other men shoo them away and off I go. I shrug my shoulders and wave goodbye to them. Most laugh and wave except one man who makes that unmistakable gesture of the slitting of throat from ear to ear – very disturbing. One of his buddies slugs him. After we are on the road a while a very fast tractor pulling a large trailer packed with the boys speeds past my pony cart. The boys are furiously waving and laughing. My driver and I have a good laugh as well.
I have a rest in my room when I reach it and then bundle up even more and head out for dinner. I have been sticking with the same restaurant for safety’s sake and decide to continue with that strategy. I remember that an Indian friend of mine back in Aberdeen suggested that I try the Thali, which is a kind of sampler meal. I see it on the menu and order it. I end up with a dinner consisting of soup, potatoes, bread, rice, curry and raw sliced vegetables that have been salted and peppered. It is really quite good. The curry is hot but I think my tolerance level is growing. I make my way down the dark road back to my room. My leg is really getting to be a problem. I hope it can make it for another week. I decide to take a shower. The bathroom seems to be home tonight to quite a congregation of mosquitoes. There is no hot water again. I take a cold shower and wash my hair very quickly. I’m in bed by 8:00 p.m. The TV is blasting in the lobby as usual. I put in my ear plugs and go to sleep.
The Muslim call to prayer wakes me a 5:30 a.m., even with my ear plugs in. I lay half awake until 7:30. I get up and wash and dig out my first-aid kit as I have cut my hand on the bathroom door bolt during the night. I layer clothes over my pajamas, put on my coat and scarf and go to the lobby. I order some chai to be brought to my room and pick up the lobby copy of the Indian Times in English and bring it back to my room. The lobby is even colder than my room. I read the paper. It is a mistake. It is filled with the terrorism and violence that seems to permeate India. I do find out that Jane Fonda and Ted Turner are getting separated. There is some news so big that the entire world must know. My chai comes and its warmth is very welcome. I was hoping to spend an hour or two back at the bamboo grove before going to Nalanda. I hope it warms up enough. I label sketches for a while and then walk down and get some breakfast. After eating I decide to pick up a few more necklaces for gifts at a shop near by. The salesman says he knows that I’m staying at Hotel Siddharth and that I bought a necklace there yesterday. He also says he will sell me another for 100 rupees less than I paid. My guess is that most of the merchants know everything that the only Westerner in town is doing. We haggle and I buy a couple more necklaces.
From there I go directly to the grove. It is still early and the fog is heavy. The park is beautiful in the fog, which hangs over the pond creating a hazy dream world. I think of the Buddha and his monks in this place 2,500 years ago, with his teaching still developing and the Sangha, the monastic community, still in its infancy. The trees are full of strange and wonderful birds. One seems to be related to our magpie in its shape but it has brilliant burnt sienna markings. Another has cardinal-like traits, but it is gray and yellow and seems more curious about me than I am about it. There are also wren-like birds and a relative of our blackbird but with very decorative markings. I walk back to the same place I painted my first day here. The grass is quite wet and I’m glad I have my cushion in its bag to give me a little distance from the damp. I have heard it said that if you want to meet people you should either go out with a dog or a baby. This trip has proven a third sure-fire way – paint in public. I gather a crowd again today and some linger most of the morning. The paintings go well again today. The first three flow easily. I then try to sneak a fourth in before going and it is weak.
I make my way back to the hotel and get ready for the bus to pick me up for the Nalanda trip. As I’m getting ready the hotel manager comes to my door and says that the bus company is on the phone. They did not get enough people to fill the bus but for 100 more rupees they will send a car over to take me – fine. I get ready for the car. It shows up and the driver is an elderly Indian with no English. I get in the front with him as we have to pick up a couple more people. As we drive to our next stop we pass some of the ancient ruins of a great wall that used to encircle the city in its former greatness. Standing by the wall, near the road, is an old Indian woman changing her sari. She swings her arms open and exposes her naked body. Every rib in her chest is articulated as clearly as any skeleton I have drawn in my studies. Her breasts that may have given life to who knows how many children seem hardly attached to the skeletal framework. My mind flashes back to the beautiful woman in the red and gold sari I saw on my way to Rajgir. I then think of the Buddha’s teachings on the impermanence of all creation, and finally I think of these startling contrasts of India. It is now very easy for me to understand why some of the greatest religious and philosophical minds of the world developed in this land.
When we stop to pick what was to be a “couple” of others, we find a family of five, two children, the husband, and two large women. They are all going to pile in the back but I invite one of the children to sit in the front between the driver and myself. The little boy reluctantly comes up on orders from his father. They do seem like nice people and the father speaks some English which will help if I need to communicate with our driver. The boy, about seven or eight, also has some English and we talk a little. After we travel some distance he offers me a piece of wrapped candy, which I gratefully accept. The boy’s manners are impeccable. The ride to Nalanda is further than I thought; it is about 25 kilometers. When we arrive the driver says we have one hour there. It is not nearly enough time to really see the sprawling grounds of the ruins of a dozen monasteries and the large Buddhist university that thrived here 2,000 years ago. The brick wall ruins are incredible. Some must be four to six feet thick. A bit of sculpture is still intact on the exterior walls. There are some standing Buddhas that are really quite exquisite in their grace. Most of the sculpture has been smashed to pieces, probably in the Muslim conquest of the region in the 12th century.
If I take the time to do a sketch I know I won’t have time to go to the archeological museum that is also here. I decide to go to the museum. It is in the identical condition to the one I visited in Bodh Gaya – run down, dirty, poor lighting and no labeling. One interesting aspect here is that the museum is also a devotion site for the Tibetan pilgrims who are streaming through the collection. Each pilgrim rubs his or her prayer beads against each statute and then touches his or her head to it. Some also leave coins at the base – now that is behavior you don’t see at the Met in New York. As in Bodh Gaya, I find a couple pieces that captivate me. One is a twelve-armed Bodhisatva that is so wonderful in its fluidity and the perfection of its design. In a room containing all bronze work is a two-foot high bronze of a standing Buddha from the Gupta Period, fourth to the sixth centuries. It is breathtaking. It exudes all the qualities I find so compelling about Buddhism – gentleness, compassion, intelligence, beauty, refinement, awareness, mindfulness and on and on. I spend a considerable amount of time with it simply soaking up its beauty.
The hour has passed and I make my way back to where we are to meet the taxi. The driver is there but not the family. We wait and they finally come out of the ruins. The father says that they haven’t had time to see the museum yet and they want to. Fine, I hustle back to the ruins for a quick sketch. I settle into an isolated spot, but I am not alone long. I paint very quickly and the sketch is quite abstract but I’m pleased with the shapes and colors. My audience seems a bit perplexed. They may have been hoping for something a bit more realistic. I pack up and hurry back to the taxi balancing my wet sketch. They are all in the cab waiting for me and off we go.
We are on our way to a second stop on the tour of which I am not aware. The family in the back begins breaking out food and passing it up to me. Not wanting to offend, I accept whatever is given to me – very spicy snack mix, cookies, candy, and so on. I have some cookies in my day bag and I dig those out and pass them around, too. I am beginning to see how these ladies maintain their scale. The family is really most kind and I am growing very fond of the little boy sitting with me. He is a sweet little fellow. We pass many small saw mills and logging operations on this stretch of road. To my surprise the primary wood seems to be palm trees.
We finally reach our second stop. It turns out to be the cremation site of the great Jain saint Mahavir who was nearly contemporary to the Buddha. It is a small white marble shrine built in the middle of an enormous lotus pond, a man-made lake, really. A long walkway leads to the shrine. Ducks swim among the lily pads and, of course, garbage. There is a wonderful long-legged, sandpiper-like bird that walks about on top of the lily pads with incredible dexterity. At the shrine there is no photography allowed. It is quiet and very peaceful. In the inner sanctuary is a priest with an open-flamed lamp. You pass your hands over the flame and then touch your head, much like a Native American sweet grass smudging ceremony. It is very nice. I walk the long walkway back with the Indian family and the little boy holds my hand. The father takes my picture with the two children and we then run into another bunch of the boys from the military school. The want their picture taken with me as well. At the entrance to the walkway the father buys a dozen little plastic figures of the seated Mahavir and gives one to me. We get in our taxi and begin speeding back to Rajgir. The father persuades the taxi driver to stop in one of the little towns we pass through, and he buys an enormous bag of pastries from a street vendor. He, of course, gives one to me. It is quite delicious – very thin layers of pastry with a sweet icing. The driver drops me at my hotel first and I bid farewell to the family and thank them for all their kindness.
In my room I unpack my painting supplies and rest a while. I then set out for dinner. I decide to live dangerously and try a new restaurant tonight. The way I have been eating today I figure I have little to lose. I decide to try the vegetable thali here and see how it differs. To my surprise it visually differs very little, but I do find one major difference. The curry is at least five times hotter than my usual restaurant. It is amazing and seems to get hotter the more I eat. I have ordered a liter of mineral water with my meal and I drink it all. As I am eating I witness the tail end of a procession I have seen every day in Rajgir. Beginning in mid-afternoon and continuing into early evening a steady stream of people come into town carrying large bundles of sticks and wood on their heads; firewood, I presume. The bundles usually take on the mass of a canoe-like form, and many times seem as large as a canoe. Men, women and children all carry the bundles that seem to be at least proportionate to their body weight. The men walk at a fast pace and the women do a strange little loping trot, which creates a very sensual movement in the women’s bodies. I feel guilty recognizing it. I have been away from home for a long time.
At the hotel I decide to settle the bill tonight as it always takes a while. They do not take credit cards. Oh well, I’ll get by. The manager figures up the bill and it comes to about what I expected. He also wants me to pay him in advance for the taxi to Patna tomorrow. This seems strange to me but I do it. I return to my room and begin packing for my 7:00 a.m. departure. Between the taxi ride, the train ride and two train stations, I am not looking forward to tomorrow. I will just have to take what comes — and in India, it will come.
I wake often in the night and the 5:30 a.m. call to prayer awakes me proper. I rise, wash, and finish my packing. The manager knocks at my door at 6:30 and says the taxi is here. I tell him I will be a few minutes and sit down and have a few crackers and peanut butter to sustain me. The manager knocks again, this time with a goodbye “offering” of chai. It is warm and welcome but I was planning on limiting my fluid intake this morning. I drink it anyway. We get my things to the taxi and the manager assures me that everything is paid up for the trip. He gives me his card and says to call if there is any trouble. That is reassuring …I think. The cab is driven by two brothers. One is cleaning the windows and the other has gone off to the bushes to relieve himself. He is gone some time. The other brother honks and honks the horn. He finally shows up and off we go. It is the heaviest fog I have seen yet in India — next to no visibility. The taxi windows are rolled down to keep the temperature inside as cold as it is outside so as to not fog the inside of the windows. This is a good idea as the outside of the windows are covered with a heavy mist and, of course, the windshield wipers do not work. The driver occasionally reaches out with a piece of newspaper and hits a little spot in front of him. It is so dense that they actually do have to drive rather slowly but they still try frequently to pass vehicles in front of us. It seems extremely dangerous as many don’t even have their lights on. My guess would be that their lights don’t work. The only thing that you can be sure of working on these vehicles is the horn. It seems to be a matter of immediate life and death. Speeding trucks appear out of the fog in front of us like apparitions. Buses and other taxis pass us and somehow don’t crash into the oncoming traffic. A rather strange mode of public transportation is the old jeep-like cars that are everywhere. They look to be made to carry about 10 people but they are usually holding, or almost holding, 20 to 30 people. They seem to do the same work as the buses.
The car is freezing and I can see my breath. I wrap my scarf around my head Indian-style and find the little gray gloves that I brought from home. No one seems to wear gloves here. Thank heavens for my Polartec jacket; it is a marvel at keeping out the cold. I have my pajama bottoms on under my jeans but my legs are still getting numb. I wish I had bought a Buddha-hippie shawl. We stop at a small town and one of the drivers buys a bunch of the same type of pastries as I had yesterday from a vendor. This time instead of a plastic bag, the pastries are put into a large loose woven basket made of palm leaves and topped with flat leaves and tied with twine – very interesting. In the taxi one of the drivers, with considerable effort, unties the twine, places a couple of the pastries on a flat leaf and hands it back to me. I gratefully accept. The fog is not letting up and the drive is even more nerve wracking than it normally would be. I feel tension building in my neck and shoulders. I do some breathing meditation and it helps some. From the mileage on the road signs I calculate our progress and easily determine that we will not make it to Patna in time to catch the train to Varanasi. I allowed four hours for what was to be a two-hour drive and it doesn’t look like it will be enough. Oh well, I survived the Patna rail station once. I can do it again.
The fog goes on but occasionally lifts a little causing a huge acceleration in speed by all on the road. In the villages we pass people getting ready for their days. Many are cleaning their teeth by chewing on sticks from a particular type of bush indigenous to India. I remember reading somewhere that the bark or wood contains a chemical that is remarkably healthy for your teeth. We stop again and the drivers follow the call of nature. Well, when in Rome —– , the chai I worried about is causing a problem, I try to find a bit more private spot. I find my way back to the taxi and wait for the drivers. One of them brings me another glass of chai. It is warm. I drink it and we are off again.
As always there are dogs everywhere. It suddenly strikes me that these dogs bear a very close resemblance to jackals, which certainly makes sense. There is a great variation in markings and color but the body structure is remarkably consistent. I do see one deviation to this. In one village I see a dog with the same jackal like structure but it has a coat that reminds me of a water spaniel. I may be seeing the genes of some colonial English aristocrat’s hunting dog from decades or centuries gone by.
In one town we pass through we are caught up in a very slow traffic jam. As we inch our way through we finally come to the cause of the slow down. In the center of the road is a “construction crew.” The crew consists of one man with a sledge hammer, one man who holds the chisel to the concrete with a long pair of thongs, and about a dozen men watching the process. It is an amazing sight. The fog begins to truly lift and my hopes are rising about meeting the train. We pass many brick-making plants, some with huge piles of bricks, mostly red. My mind goes back to the remarkable ruins of Nalanda I toured yesterday. They seemed to be made from the same brick only formed several thousand years ago — what consistency of building materials.
I never cease to be amazed at traveling in India. On the roads there seem to be absolutely no laws, rules, or regulation that govern the drivers. There are no road signs except occasionally for mileage, no road markings, no speed limits, no nothing. It seems a constant jostling for position based only on size and speed. It is an ongoing battle of passing and cutting off and honking. The surprising thing is the nearly total lack of emotion displayed by the drivers and others on the roads. Rarely is there any anger or even outward response to the antics going on all around. It is seems that this is simply the way it is and all accept the conditions and focus on the very difficult task of staying alive in the middle of it. To get angry would simply be a waste of energy and attention. This makes me reflect on an even larger question in India. How does this incredible mass of a billion people function together in the ever-shrinking space per person. I have not seen much of a presence of law and order – the occasional army personnel that I have mentioned, but certainly not nearly enough to actually control the population. From what I can perceive I don’t think it is a nation that is governed by local and national authorities who maintain law and order, at least not as I am accustomed to. I have to wonder if the social structure of the communities are not more maintained by the values, morals and social responsibilities of the Hindu and Muslim religions. I wonder if these ancient belief systems are the real social glue of this remarkable place.
We hit another traffic jam. This time the vehicles simply pile up three across filling road. The driver turns off the engine and turns on his radio to pop Indian music – loud, which seems to be the only way I have heard music played here. Food vendors mill in the stopped vehicles and everyone is very casual about the delay. After some time far in the distance I can make out a train moving toward the road. Sure enough, that was is it. After the train crosses we begin a strange maneuvering to try to form one lane of traffic and we are off again. The actual railroad crossing is so rough that I’m sure it would take the bottoms off of most American cars. We are back in traffic now in what I am assuming is the outskirts of Patna. I have come to the conclusion that my sore throat problems are not associated with a virus but with the pollution. The air quality is noxious. The buses and huge trucks belch out a steady spray of diesel fumes and all the scooters and auto ricksaws are two-cycle engines running on a gas and oil mixture that is tremendously polluting. As we pass through neighborhood after neighborhood I think of all these people who literally live on the road. Their health and life spans must be terribly affected. I think of my own father dying of lymphoma after more than 30 years of breathing in diesel fumes working on the railroad. The children along the road amaze me. How do they stay alive – or do they? Many times I see children three or four years old who are taking care of infants six months to a year old — all out in this frenzied traffic.
It is nearly time for my train’s departure and we are still winding our way through these congested streets. Finally, we reach the station. I tip the drivers, get a porter and he guides me to the inquiry desk where my platform for departure is supposed to be posted. It is not. That means I have to make my way to the counter. As before, it is a furious pushing and shoving match to get there. The meek would never make it. There is solid glass between me and the men behind the counter. You have shout at the top of your lungs to communicate with them. Unfortunately, they only speak Hindi so they can’t tell what I want. Fortunately, someone in this heaving mass understands some English and shouts a translation for me and I do find out what platform. I struggle back to my porter and off we go. We find the platform and I tip the porter well and he says it’s not enough. I send him on his way. I’m wise to this old game now. I actually find a place to sit on a concrete bench. I look up and see a monitor that is announcing train schedules and make out my numbers and notice that the train has been delayed for three hours. All my rushing and concern were for naught – I now have a three-hour wait.
This platform is certainly much better than that lower level of hell I waited on last time. The TV monitor blares commercials, music videos and trains schedules. I look at the long wait as an opportunity to catch up on my journal entries. Again, there is not a Westerner in site and I am something of a point of interest, especially among the beggars who harass me until all my coins are gone and I send them away. The cold, hard bench gets to be a bit much so I place my meditation cushion on it and soften my resting place. There seems to be a subculture of shoe-shine boys at the rail station. They seem like a very wily bunch. I’ll bet there are some stories to be told. I maintain my seat for the full three hours, knowing if I leave it for a minute it will be gone. People are sitting all over the dirty concrete and on their bags.
To my surprise the train does show up in three hours as predicted. I dash to a vendor and buy a bottle of water and a packet of cookies for the trip. I find my car and wrestle my duffel into the overhead rack – no small feat. The AC car I’m in is not full and the seat next to me is open. That is very nice in that it gives me a chance to stretch out a bit. The car is beat up and still dirty but quite comfortable compared to my last train ride. When my agent was talking about an AC car I thought it was a little strange in that I didn’t need air conditioning in this type of weather. I now find out that AC does not stand for “air conditioning” but “arm chair.” The windows of the car are so dirty that the view out the window takes on a hazy appearance, almost dreamlike. We are moving and the slums of Patna look surreal through my altered view. Shacks, huts, goats, cows and people, so many people, all float by. The conductor comes around and takes my ticket, looks at me, and says nothing. I think that’s good. The chai salesman comes around and I treat myself. We are now moving deeper into the countryside the paddies and fields are green and well irrigated. I remember Vinya telling me that at this time of year most of the fields are planted to wheat and in the rainy season they plant rice. A cigarette salesman now comes through the car and, unfortunately, has some customers. I remember reading in the Indian newspaper that more than 50% of Indian men over 18 years old smoke.
The countryside is so beautiful and the towns represent such squalor. It is very consistent. When we reach more isolated villages they do not seem as dirty and garbage filled. They actually seem quite pleasant and charming, similar to those I saw on my walk across the dikes in the country. I can’t believe it! There are even beggars on the train in these more expensive cars. A man with no hands shoves his stumps in my face and pleads for money. These encounters are one of the most difficult parts of this entire trip for me.
On the telephone wires outside my window I see a bird that seems to be the Indian version of our mourning doves that give so much joy every spring with their antics and cooing in our shelterbelt at home – they make me smile. My gaze lowers to the ditch by the railroad track and I see an entire community of people that seems to live there in makeshift shelters. My smile fades.
I have no worry about getting hungry on the train. There seems to be a steady stream of vendors passing through the cars. I buy some peanuts and a strange fruit bar. The comfort level of this train trip is certainly much higher than my last. After three hours pass I decide I had better ask someone for help in knowing when to get off. I politely request the help of a young man sitting in front of me. He proves very friendly and moves back to sit with me. He has recently graduated from university and is working in the marketing department of Indian Oil. I tell him a bit about what I’m doing in India and another man who has been intently listening from across the aisle asks to join us. As it turns out he, too, is in marketing but at Pepsi. He is new at his job as he has just quit the marketing department at India’s largest cigarette company. He said his son had asked him how he could work for a company that sold products that hurt people. He couldn’t answer his son so he quit his job. He is a very friendly man. He says his wife teaches geography at a University in Patna and he volunteers the use of the university library to me for my research on Jataka tales. I thank him, but politely decline – a team of wild horses could not get me back to Patna. The three of us carry on a very enjoyable conversation. The young man with the oil company lives in Varanasi and gives me his name and cell phone number and says if I have any trouble while I’m there I should call him. The Pepsi man gives me his card and says the next time I’m in Patna I must stay with him and his wife – talk about quick friendships and thoughtful people. We cross the great Ganges River as we come into Varanasi and my friend from the oil company gets up and turns off the lights in the train, without asking anyone, so I can see the river at night. It is stunningly beautiful – my first sight of that holy waterway. The train pulls into Varanasi, a city of 2.5 million people with a history that stretches back three to four thousand years – again I realize that I’m “not in Kansas anymore.”
My friend from Varanasi helps me off the train and to the place that my agent should be waiting for me. Sure enough, there stands a man holding a sign, “Mr. Mark,” as I was known to the travel people in Bodh Gaya. I bid farewell to my new friend and get a porter to tote my bag. The agent gets me to the taxi and I argue with the porter and we are off. Well, almost off. The cab driver is also in a huge argument with some other cab drivers and takes a while to get going. My porter keeps yelling at us as well. The travel agent is the brother of one of the men I worked with in Bodh Gaya and he is smooth and charming. He has booked me in a three star hotel, which is bit higher priced than I had requested, but I am ready for a little comfort. After helping me get checked into the hotel and up to my room the agent says that his fee wasn’t included in the rupees I paid in Bodh Gaya for pick up and delivery in Varnasi, but he said he was glad to do it as I was such a good friend of his brother’s. I say that is very nice of him – goodbye. I have no idea if I will see him for my prepaid trip to the airport in a few days or not.
The hotel is quite a change – a portable electric heater, towels, room service, a laundry, hot water, toilet paper. This is real high-class living. This hotel also has an interesting technology feature that was also in my hotel room in Mumbai. Located by the door is a plastic box into which fits a plastic card that is attached to your key. In order for any of the electricity to work in your room the card with the key must be placed in the box. When you leave the room and take your key, all power is automatically shut down. It must save a tremendous amount of electricity.
I settle into the room, relax a while and then go down to the hotel restaurant for dinner. A large group of young men at a nearby table good-naturedly give me a hard time. I play along for a while and then ignore them. The food and service are both good. I enjoy my meal and return to my room. I send a pair of my jeans and my much worn denim shirt to the laundry. My first hot show in four days is heavenly and I bask in it for some time. They have a direct-dial long-distance phone in the lobby and I go down to call Sammy to let her know of my new location and get a little news of home. I go back to my room, watch some Indian TV, and go to sleep. I am looking forward to my day in Sarnath tomorrow.
I wake at 5:00 a.m. with a sharp pain running down the left side of my neck into my shoulder. Either I slept wrong or the stress of travel tension all settled into that spot. I finally get out of bed at 7:30, clean up and do my yoga stretching exercises that I do daily at home but have been totally neglecting on this trip (which is probably why I have the pain.) The stretches help some but the pain is still there. I have a quick breakfast and go to the desk to get the phone number of Indian Airlines so I can check on the departure time of my flight in a of couple days. A young German couple is at the desk trying to make arrangements to leave. I can tell by their demeanor and signs of visual stress that I am not the only Westerner who finds travel here difficult. The disinterested desk clerk finally gets me the number I need and I return to my room. My neck pain seems to have developed a side effect – a splitting headache. I call Indian Airlines, and, sure enough, all my flight times have been changed. I try to call my agent here, but he is not in yet.
I rest a while hoping that my neck and head will improve. They don’t so I decide to go to Sarnath anyway. I pack up my painting supplies and head out the front door of the hotel. I am immediately besieged by a pack of taxi and auto rickshaw drivers who descend on me like sharks on bait. I get into an auto rickshaw and ask him how much to Sarnath — its about a 10 kilometer drive. He says 100 rupees. I tell him that is what a taxi should cost. A taxi driver standing near by says he will take me there for that. Fine, I get out of the rickshaw and go with him. The rickshaw driver follows screaming at us. Another manic taxi driver says he will take me there for 75 rupees. He is a rather rough looking fellow and I decide to stick to my first taxi choice. Now he is screaming at us, too. Off we finally go into the same wild madness of the road.
Varanasi, or at least the area we are driving through, reminds me of what a post-apocalyptic city might look like. It seems all is rubble and garbage – a vast expanse of debris and confusion.
We make it to Sarnath and I ask to go to the museum first as it is still too foggy to paint. I go to buy the 2-rupee ticket to get into the museum and I give the man a 10-rupee note. He glares at me and barks, “No change!” I say I don’t care about change, just give me a ticket. He says no. I have to get change. I go to a vendor and buy some mints and get some change. I go back and buy the ticket and the man literally throws it at me. At the gate of the museum another man tells me I can’t bring the bag in which I am carrying my cushion. I have to check it with the same ogre I just got the ticket from – I do it. When I finally get into the museum it is considerably larger than any of the previous ones I have visited. At the entrance is a “knockout” piece. It is the capital of the great Asokan pillar that was erected in Sarnath in the 3rd century B.C. It is the famous lion capital that is featured on the Indian flag and on much Indian currency. I have been showing slides of this piece for years in class but in reality it is vastly more beautiful, powerful and impressive. I spend quite a bit of time admiring it and soaking it up. The back side of the pillar, that is never photographed, is smashed and little remains. To my surprise, a guard begins talking with me about the art. He begins to talk too much telling me bits of information I already know and bits of misinformation as well. I try to get rid of him but he keeps it up. I then figure it out. I give him some rupees and he goes away.
At the far end of the museum I see something that makes my mouth drop open and my heart skip a beat. It is the original seated Gupta Dynasty Buddha that I based the center section of my Buddhism Quintych painting on in 1992. It is breathtaking. At life-size it emits a sense of tranquillity, peace, calm and absolute beauty. I stand before it transfixed. I am sure that I am looking at one of the greatest works of art every created by humankind. My mesmerized bliss is broken by a large group of Tibetan pilgrims coming through the museum. They touch each sculpture with their beads and their heads and place coins at the base. The museum guards follow along behind scooping up the coins as soon as they are placed. The museum has a very large collection of Gupta Dynasty sculpture and I admire several standing Buddhas similar to the bronze I had seen in Nalanda.
The other major wing of the museum is devoted to Hindu sculpture and I stroll through it. Another guard in this wing pulls the same routine and I give him some money to go away. Before I leave the museum I go again to stand in front of and bask in the beauty of that amazing seated Buddha. It is so wonderful.
I leave the museum and head for the main enclosed area of Sarnath. Sarnath is the site that the Buddha first came to after reaching enlightenment. It was here that he found the five ascetics that he had lived with for six years before abandoning their path. It was to them that he preached his first great sermon in which he taught the Four Noble Truths. Put very plainly they deal with the following: the existence of suffering, the cause of suffering, the cessation of suffering, and the path that leads to the cessation of suffering. Most of the rest of the teachings of the Buddha go on to explain these truths and how to accomplish the path of truth through understanding that leads to the cessation of all suffering. Coming from a land and position of privilege, as I do, I have always had a difficult time truly understanding the heavy emphasis on suffering in this foundation of Buddhism. The experiences I have had in the past two weeks have given me a much better understanding of how this came to be. There was great suffering in India at the time of the Buddha. There is great suffering in India today.
The main enclosure at Sarnath contains the foundations of the ruins of monasteries, temples, and stupas. The one large intact structure is the Dhamekh Stupa built in the 6th century. To my dismay the grounds are a mess with garbage, beggars and hawkers. It seems such a desecration of this wonderful holy site where one of the world’s greatest teachers began his work. I decide to start at what is called Deer Park. It is a site of one of the Buddha’s early rainy season retreats and also the legendary site of one of the most famous Jataka tales in which the Buddha, in the form of a deer king, offers himself to a ruler in place of a pregnant doe who is to be the ruler’s supper. There is a nice herd of spotted deer in an enclosure but they are impossible to enjoy as you are constantly harassed by children and women selling bags of chopped vegetables to feed to the deer. I’m sure my neck and headache are part of the problem but I have little patience for the pushy harassment today and I lose my temper with them. I take some photos for reference and move along.
I make my way to the great stupa. It is a marvelous structure. The side walls are wonderfully carved and pilgrims have pressed abstract patterns of gold-leaf squares around the exterior as offerings. Pilgrims also try to throw prayer scarves onto the ledges and niches of the stupa as part of their prayers. As I make my way around the stupa I am constantly besieged by beggars and hawkers.
I decide to do some sketching and find a nice view of the stupa and ruins and settle in. I do draw an audience again, and my low mood is not really conducive to it. I try to be pleasant. The first sketch goes well but the second is weak. I decide to take a break for lunch and buy some oranges that I saw at a vendor’s stand outside the enclosure. I walk around looking for a good place to sit and eat my oranges and drink some water. A group of young Indian couples want me to join them. I decline. I’m just not feeling very social. Sarnath seems to be a site for young, middle-class courting couples from Varanasi. I imagine they can convince their parents of the cultural significance of an afternoon here. Of all the couples I have observed here and at other places, I have not seen one instance of physical contact between the couples – no hand holding, no arms around one another and certainly no kissing. This is a sharp contrast to the public interaction between men. It is very common to see young and middle aged Indian men holding hands while walking down the street or when talking to one another. This does not for the most part suggest a gay relationship as it might in the United States. It is instead sign a of friendship and platonic affection. I have also seen young men lying with heads in other young men’s laps and putting their arms around one another. I have also seen women walking and holding hands. But I have never seen public physical contact between men and women, whether courting or married.
I settle down in a quiet spot and eat some oranges. I watch two grounds women down on their hands and knees in a ditch with primitive hand shears cutting the grass in a rather pointless manner. They finish and walk by me. I offer them both an orange which they accept. It seems very refreshing to give to someone who is not harassing me. As I am eating a dirty little boy with a cloth bag comes up to me and wants to sell me a painted wooden tiger with a rather ingenious weight system that makes the head bob and the tail go up and down. I buy one for my grandson, Gabe.
I feel a bit better after eating the oranges and I decide to try some more sketching. I position myself to see a huge, wonderful tree in front of the stupa. The crowd watching gets so thick that times I can’t see my view. My little toy salesman returns with a group of hawker buddies and they settle in to watch me paint for a long time. As long as I’m painting they are fine, but if I stop they shift into their hard sales routines. I do two sketches and decide that is all I can take today. I decide to go back to the museum before I leave to take one more look at the glorious seated Buddha. I go to buy the ticket and it is the same man at the window. I give him five rupees and he gives me my ticket and 3 rupees back. I check my cushion as I did before. When I turn to go into the gate a holy man beggar confronts me. I have been told you should not turn them down so I give him the rupees I have in my hand from the change and place it in his begging bowl. I go to the gate and museum guard. He tells me that now I have to check my day bag as well. I did not check it this morning or at any other museum. I argue with him. I also can’t find the ticket I have just bought. I must have dropped it in the beggars bowl along with the money. I’ve had enough. I go back to get my checked bag and look for a taxi to take me back to the hotel. There are no available taxis around. They are all waiting for people they have brought out from the Varanasi. Most people only stay an hour or two. I do finally find an auto rickshaw willing to take me back. The problem is that he doesn’t seem to know where my hotel is. He asks a taxi driver and then he is sure he can find it. It is my worst drive yet. The fumes are overwhelming. I can feel my throat constricting. The driver is missing other vehicles by slight fractions of inches in his frenzied attempt to get through traffic. Then he can’t find my hotel after all. He finally asks someone at a bus stop and we make our way there. The hotel and my room seem like a real refuge. I go to my room and collapse. I take a long rest and then go down for dinner. I have a very strange vegetable dish and then an even stranger pudding for desert. The pudding comes in a rather large bowl with a decorative garnish of nuts, raspberry swirls and a gossamer thin sheet of silver leaf on top – very strange – but very tasty. I return to my room and go straight to bed. I am very tired and hope to feel better tomorrow and have a better attitude as well.
I wake at 5:00 a.m. My neck still has some pain but is much better. The headache is still with me. I get up and take some Advil and lay back down until 6:30. I do my meditation and stretches and I feel much better. I order some breakfast from room service. The eggs are cold but I eat them anyway.
My original plans were to spend two days painting at Sarnath. After yesterday I have decided to eliminate the second day at Sarnath and instead go to the Ganges this morning and visit some Hindu temples this afternoon. My hopes are to rent a boat and paint from it this morning. I ask the front desk where I should ask a taxi to take me to rent a boat to take me out on the Ganges. They seem confused and send me to their in-house travel agent. They are helpful but high priced and I end up renting a car and driver for the entire day. I figure the extra expense will be worth not having to go through multiple hassles with taxi drivers. The ride to the river is through incredibly congested narrow streets. I am glad I didn’t take an auto rickshaw. I see people visibly gagging in the streets. The driver stops and parks the taxi in what appears to be a back alley. We get out and walk through small spaces between buildings filled mainly with cows and their residue and the overpowering smell of urine. We finally reach the river and the ghats. Varanasi is one of the holiest cities in India to the Hindus. One of the primary reasons is this great ancient river is considered to be the mother of all. A long stretch of the river through Varanasi has had, for thousands of years, a long series of ghats, stone steps leading down into the river, in which people come to do ritual bathing in the holy water.
My driver, who gets a kickback from all I do today, takes me to a man who handles a small fleet of row boats with boys who oar them for tourists. I have asked about fair prices ahead of time so I know what I should pay. The boat broker says 300 rupees an hour, twice what it should be. We haggle for a while. I threaten to leave and we settle on 175 an hour. A teenage boy is my rower and he has a smattering of English. It is very nice out on the river – very quiet and peaceful. People are out on the ghats bathing and praying. We pass two funeral pyres being prepared by the edge of the river.
We come to an area I would like to sketch and I ask the boy to put out the anchor, which they assured me we had before we left. We have no anchor. The boy tries to keep the boat in position as I paint but it is impossible and my field of vision is constantly changing. I decide one sketch is enough and we move on. He explains to me that each ghat is used by a different sect or by people from different parts of India during the festivals. He takes the boat over to the east side of the Ganges and beaches it by a little chai stand. I buy us both a cup and I do a sketch while we are grounded looking back across the river toward the ghats. It turns out very well. We have been out nearly two hours and I ask him to take us back to our starting point. As we return, the two funeral pyres are ablaze with their centers burning white-hot. He says they burn 24 hours a day. As I watch, another body is brought to the shore wrapped and put directly into the river. According to long-standing tradition, some disease victims and other cases are not cremated.
As we approach our docking site an old man in a boat latches onto ours. He is selling little leaf and marigold floats with candles. The objective is to light the float and set it in the Ganges with a prayer for long life to the Mother Ganges. I buy two and set one afloat with a prayer for Sammy and the other with a prayer for my children and their loved ones – a lovely little ritual.
We land and I pay up and everyone wants more and then tips also – it is never ending. I had seen some restaurants on the river and I ask the driver if he knows of good ones where I could eat lunch. He says no, but he knows of one in town – that he no doubt gets a kickback from. We go to the restaurant and he comes in and sits with me so I buy him lunch. Meanwhile he says he knows of a great place where they sell beautiful embroidery work — very cheap, of course. With my interest in embroidery I say I would like to see it but not until we visit some temples. I tell him that I am not interested in looking at silk as it is against Buddhist precepts to purchase silk due to the killing of the silkworms in the process of making the fabric. He says no silk. After lunch I ask to use the toilet. A young man takes me out to the wall beside the building in full view of the busy street and shows me how easy it is – I think not. I pay the bill and leave.
The first temple I have the driver take me to is Visvanath Temple. A soaring Siva temple with gold covered domes – all photography is forbidden. To get there you have to walk through a maze of tiny market alleys for foot traffic only. Some wonderful shops line the paths with dazzling sharis and fabrics. Closer to the temple the shops sell flowers and other offerings to bring to the temple. Non-Hindus are not allowed in the temple so I observe for a while from the outside. On our return to the taxi my driver walks very fast. He may be afraid I will buy something somewhere he doesn’t get a percentage.
The next stop is at a temple to Durga, the great Hindu goddess. It is an incredible soaring blood-red temple. They not only allow non-Hindus in, they also allow photography. When I enter the temple I am besieged by “priests” smudging my forehead, tying strings around my wrists and garlands of flowers around my neck and blessing me with water. All want rupees as soon as they are done, but it is still quite an experience. The temple surges with energy and devotees in various phases of worship. It is a most enjoyable stop.
The final temple I wish to visit is one devoted to Hanuman, the great monkey general from the Ramayana. It is a let-down, very run-down and ill kept. I do get a few photos of monkeys for my Jataka research. The driver now takes me to one of the Muslim parts of town to show me the embroidery. He first shows me the “factory.” It is a series of horribly dark rooms with 19th century card looms. I take a photo of an old man at one of the looms and give him some money. He wants more. The driver takes me to one of the private show rooms and I am left with my personal salesman. He shows me all silk and no embroidery. I tell him it’s not what I’m looking for, but he won’t let me leave. He gets a phone call and I sneak out, find my driver and escape.
I tell the driver I want to go to the largest English language bookstore in Varanasi. I’m looking for books with good quality visuals of Indian wildlife for reference in my planned painting series. We drive for quite some time and he finally stops at a five-star hotel. He says the bookstore is here. Well, there is a bookstore but it is quite small. I do find one old “coffee table” book on Indian wildlife and environment that would be a very good resource. The owner asks 1800 rupees for it — $42.00. It is at least twice what the book is worth. I offer him 1000 rupees. He declines and I leave. I ask to go back to the hotel. I am worn out. I decide I would like to see the sunrise on the Ganges tomorrow morning and do some painting from one of the ghats instead of a boat. I make arrangements at the hotel for an early morning taxi to wait for me.
I make my way to my room for a rest but first call the travel agent who picked me up at the train and is supposed to take me to the airport tomorrow. With the change in flight times I would like him to pick me up earlier. I do manage to get him on the phone and get the time changed. He asks me if I would like to go out on the town with him this evening. I graciously decline – my, my, I can imagine what an evening that could be. I rest for a while and do a couple of quick sketches out of my hotel window. One of a new catholic church in the distance and another of the tropical foliage and the evening sunset. I turn on the TV and watch a little CNN. The acting president of Russia is speaking. I wonder what happened to Yelstin. I certainly have been out of the news loop.
For dinner I try the Chinese restaurant at the hotel door. The food is excellent and the service is so good it is actually a bit strange. They serve me my food and every time they see something getting low on my plate they rush over and dish more out. I’m sure they would feed it to me as well if I asked. It is definitely some of the best Chinese food I have ever eaten. I return to the hotel and pack for my departure tomorrow, shower, read for a while and go to sleep. It will be an early rise tomorrow if I am to see the sunrise on the Ganges.
I sleep poorly and get up at 5:00 a.m. to be ready for my 6:00 a.m. taxi. It is the same driver as yesterday – oh well, he does know where I want to go. The roads are quiet as most of the city seems to still be asleep. We reach the river and it is still pitch black. I decide to do my morning meditation. I settle in midway down a ghat on my cushion. My driver understands and leaves me alone. Even the early morning hustlers and hawkers on the ghat leave me alone while I’m meditating. It is a wonderful meditation. I hear roosters crowing, bells announcing the morning and chanted payers by Hindus bathing directly below me. As I finish my meditation and slowly open my eyes a glimmer of light appears over the eastern horizon. It is a very subtle sunrise due to fog, which may be better than a dramatic one. I watch the gray-blue and faint orange reflect on the surface of the great sacred river. I dig out my supplies and begin to sketch. There are quite a few tourists already out on the river with their boatmen. One young boatman sings a prayer to the Hindu pantheon as he cruises by me. He has a beautiful voice, one that would fit well into an English cathedral boys choir. I have gathered an audience, mostly locals but a few tourists as well. I begin a second sketch looking down the river toward a bend with ghats and the tourist in their boats. It develops quite abstractly and I am pleased with the results. My driver is now back watching me paint. I have about a half hour left of the time I had scheduled with him. I do one more quick sketch. Two little street beggars, a boy and a girl, have been watching me all morning. They are quiet and content as long as I’m painting but when I finish they start their routines. I look into the little girl’s eyes and I can see such intelligence and potential. What are the chances of that potential ever being realized? She has a cough that seems to reach deeply into her chest. What are her chances of living out the year? My heart breaks one more time. I am finished and pack up. I give the little girl my painting water container and ask her to take it down to the bottom of the ghat and empty my brown water into the brown water of the Ganges. An Indian man who has been watching translates for me to be sure she understands. She takes it down and slowly pours it into the river. It seems an appropriate ritual. She returns and I dig into my pocket and bring out a couple wrapped mints and give them to her and the boy.
I make my way back to the taxi with my driver. I can’t get the wildlife book I turned down yesterday off my mind. It would be a great help and the salesman said it was out of print and from its age I would have to say it probably is. I ask the driver when the store opens. He says now. I look at my watch and its only 8:00 a.m. It seems unlikely but I ask him to take me there again. When we arrive it is closed but my driver does have enough connections to get it opened. A problem arises when we can’t find the book again and the salesman from yesterday is not there yet. They send someone to his house to get him. I sit down to wait and read a while. He shows up and is delighted to see me. He decides that for a good customer like me he will give a discount — 1650 rupees. I take it.
Back at the hotel I finish my packing. I decide to pack as if I will never see my big black duffel bag again, which is a possibility with Indian Airlines. I put everything into my day bag that I feel I can’t go home without: my sketches, my journal, the Jataka Tales books I found in Bodh Gaya, my exposed film and my camera. It is a heavy carry-on bag. At 11:30 a.m. I haul my stuff down stairs and prepare to check out. I am overwhelmed by every hotel employee that I have had any contact with whatsoever in my three days here. All are looking for a farewell tip. I expend all my small bills. As I finish clearing my hotel bill in walks my super-smooth young travel agent who met me at the train station. I don’t think I have ever met anyone who exudes such a sense of self-assurance and confidence. I think he will go far. He asks me how my stay has gone in Varanasi and assures me that on my next trip to India he can arrange everything. I am very sure he could. He puts me in a taxi he has brought and off I go to the airport and the flight to my last stop on the trip — Agra.
The roads are packed with traffic and I am glad I scheduled the pick-up very early. The driver seems younger than most I have had and for a while I think he is a more responsible driver than usual. It turns out that it was just the level of congestion that was slowing him down. When he sees some daylight he is off like an Indy 500 driver – 60 kilometers an hour through packed city streets – unbelievable. There seems to be a strong military presence in the city. Most of the soldiers carry the old bolt action rifles I have seen elsewhere in India. I am beginning to wonder if these beret-wearing, green fatigue-clad men are the police and not the military.
At the airport the armed presence is very high. The Indian Airlines highjacking is over, but they are still very nervous. I get a porter and make my way to the door to get into the airport terminal. The door is blocked so it will only open about 18 inches which I squeeze through. I then show my ticket to an armed uniformed man who studies the ticket and then gives me that typical little sideways nod that looks like “no” but in Indian body language means “yes.” I go ahead and walk a gauntlet of about 10 armed men who all scrutinize me. The porter takes me to the Indian Airlines check-in desk and a man behind the counter roughly yells something at us, which the porter understands as “Not yet, go away!” So I do. I sit for some time until another man comes to the desk and indicates he is ready. I drag my bags over and get them up on the scales. The man tells me I need to get my bags cleared through security and gestures in the general direction where I might get it done. I drag my duffel in that direction and find the machine but no one operating it. I wait for awhile and then go back to the desk and say there is no one over there. The man goes to the area with me and yells at a man sitting in the chairs by the machine chatting with friends. He lethargically gets up and plugs in the machine and tells me it will be five minutes. In 15 minutes he is ready. I struggle to get my bag up on the machine and it goes into the X-ray enclosure. He stops the conveyor belt and motions for me to come over. I go and he points at the X-ray of my cheap alarm clock and says I need to take the battery out. I unpack the bag with some difficulty and take the battery out, repack the bag and take the approved bag back to the check in. Everything goes well and the man tells me the flight has been delayed another hour. Only an hour, I feel quite good about that.
I settle into a waiting area when a huge commotion with loud chanting breaks out at the terminal entrance not too far from where I am sitting. A group of mainly young men comes barging though the doors yelling and screaming at the guards. Many of them are carrying garlands of marigolds. I assume they are here to meet someone and with the strict airport security only ticketed passengers are being allowed into the terminal. They do manage to bully their way in. They all gather around where I’m sitting, still yelling and screaming. I get up and move to a different sitting area. In a few minutes they also move to where I am sitting. They seem to be getting more and more excited so I assume the celebrity has landed. I speculate that it is either a holy person or a politician. Finally the “star” arrives. The waiting group does more loud chanting, they throw garlands around his neck and he scoops them all off with one motion and hands them to an assistant. He is stern-faced and solemn. I take it he is not a holy man and must be a politician. I ask an airport employee who says, “vice-president.”
They leave and the place quiets down. I get a stale cucumber and tomato sandwich and cookies for lunch. I notice people are starting to go through personal security. I can’t understand a word of the “English” announcements over the P.A. system. I check at the counter and discover it is my flight that is being cleared. They scan my carry-ons and then take me into a curtained booth with a guard who gives me a very thorough and personal frisking. My guard is really quite nice and we chat a bit about America. I’m quite lucky compared to an Indian couple who is in front of me. They have all their carry-ons unpacked and gone through in detail. They have some Hindu sculptures that the guards are shaking and checking for any interior compartments. In the final waiting room the delay is lengthened to two hours. As I am waiting a guard comes up to me and says I need to accompany him to the tarmac to check my bags. I go with him and dig out my key to open the bag. He say no, he doesn’t want me to open it, he just wants to check my bag number against my ticket. He does so and everything is fine. I go back in and resume my waiting. From the window I see a very shabby looking plane land. It is in need of paint and the tail is wired to the body. I think to myself. “That must be my plane.” It is. After more waiting we are ready to board. The interior of the plane is in the same shape as the exterior. I just hope the engines are in better condition. They seem to be and we make it to Agra.
I am concerned if anyone will be there to meet me as I have been unable to contact my Bodh Gaya agent with the information of the flight changes and he has arranged my contact in Agra. But my worries are misplaced. At the door is a young man in a suit holding a sign with my name on it. His name is Kenneth — his great-grandfather was English. He takes me to the hotel he has booked for me. In checking in I find they only take American Express. I tell my agent that this won’t work as my funds are depleted. He takes me to his agency where I pay him for the room with my credit card and he in turn will pay the hotel. I’m getting quite used to paying people for services that others will provide.
I settle into my new room. There seems to be large hair balls in the corners of the room but it still falls well within my new tolerance levels of cleanliness. It does have a private bath and a little heater, which are much appreciated. I rest a while and then go to the hotel restaurant for dinner. Not too many people are there but a small swarm of waiters and boys are standing around. I decide to get daring and order Fish Shah Jahani in honor of the builder of the Taj Mahal, which is what has brought me to Agra. It is undoubtedly the weirdest dish I have eaten, or, should I say, tried to eat, comprising of fish, pineapple, mushrooms, and an indescribable curry sauce. I eat what I can and head out. I go to a direct-dial phone in a booth outside the hotel to let Sammy know where I am and that I’m really looking forward to my return home on Saturday. She says she and the kids are well. The phone manager grossly overcharges me for the call. I am so sick of the money thing here.
On my way back to my room I run into an auto rickshaw driver who wants to take me anywhere I wish to go. He has an extremely amiable personality and his English is quite good. I ask him to meet me here at 7:00 a.m. to take me to the Taj Mahal. I return to my room take a shower and get in the bed. I notice that I have a large flock of mosquitoes as roommates and quite a few large roach-like creatures scurrying across the floor. I put on mosquito repellent and hope that the roaches stay on the floor as I go to sleep.
I, again, have something of a fitful night but I do get some sleep. I wake at 5:00 a.m. and lay awake until 6:00 a.m. when I get up to the sound of my cheap alarm clock with the battery reinstalled. I wash up and at 6:30 the porridge and chai arrives that I ordered last night. I have visions of Papu’s porridge dancing in my head when I sit down to a bowl of runny rather strange smelling stuff. I dowse it with a heavy hit of sugar and eat some. By 7:00 I am out of the hotel and my auto rickshaw driver is waiting. His name is Lala. I am not making that up. I think of asking him if he has heard of the Teletubbies and then I think I might as well ask him if he has heard of my 8th grade P.E. teacher. He takes me directly to the Taj Mahal and wants to wait for me. I tell him I plan on staying until 4:00 or 5:00 p.m. He says he will be here waiting for me at about 3:00. Fine.
I make my way to the ticket office and to my surprise I find that the ticket costs 505 rupees; Indians pay 15 rupees. The large fee also admits you to three other sites in Agra but they must all be seen on the same day. I buy the ticket and go in. Before going in a guard goes through my day bag and takes away my little flashlight. He says they are not allowed. I remember reading in one of my guide books that you need a flashlight inside the tomb to see the detail of the inlay work. No, he says they are not allowed. As I get through the gates I am accosted by “guides” who want to show me the tomb. They all have flashlights as they are “authorized.” I decline as I am sure I already know as much or more than the stubble faced “guides.”
I am so glad I came this early. I am amazed that I am almost the only one here. It has rained last night and it is still quite hazy. The Taj Mahal is so incredibly subtle and beautiful in the gentle morning light. I walk toward it very slowly to appreciate the quiet changes in detail and color taking place due to distance and light. It seems to be more beautiful the closer you get. Before going up on the platform with the main structure you have to take your shoes off and check them. Water is standing everywhere from the rain last night and it is still quite cold. I take my shoes and socks off and put my dirty “temple” socks on from my day bag. They will at least give me a little warmth. As I move up to the surface of the walls of the mausoleum I am disappointed and then shocked. There are areas where the semi-precious inlaid stones have been gouged out and stolen and by the look of the marks, some fairly recently! I simply can’t fathom that happening to one of the most beautiful structures ever created. There are guards standing around but they certainly don’t look overly interested or alert. I walk the entire perimeter before finally going inside. It certainly is dark inside. There is only one light bulb burning inside a wonderful golden lattice fixture hanging over the sarcophagi. You certainly can’t see the detail of the elaborate inlay work. A group of English tourists come in with an upscale guide. He has a flashlight and I casually bum along with them for a little while to see some of the detail. It is exquisite. I then go off on my own. I don’t know how many times I have projected slides of the carved marble screen for my students that encircles the coffins but seeing it for the first time here is a revelation. It is nearly three inches thick and carved as if it were soap with graceful, interlacing, open-lattice carving. It is a marvel. I finally go stand in the one open area of the screen that allows a view of the sarcophagi. There are two coffins, in the center is Mumtaz Mahal’s and to the right is the larger tomb of Shah Jahan. Certainly part of the power of this amazing place is the story of Shah Jahan building this tomb as a labor of love that took 22 years and a workforce of 20,000 men to memorialize his beloved favorite wife who died giving birth to their fourteenth child. One story has it that he planned to have a duplicate tomb built for himself at the far end of the reflecting pond in black onyx, but before he could, one of his sons staged a coup and imprisoned him for the rest of his life in Agra Fort. The son did have enough compassion to confine his father in a room with a view of the Taj Mahal.
As I stand in the opening and gaze at the tombs, which are actually duplicates of the real ones contained in the crypt directly below, I am no longer disturbed by the lack of light. The wonderful dappled light that falls from the single bulb casts a gentle pattern over the interior creating a deeply meditative atmosphere. I stand there in the quiet for some time as there are very few people around yet. The mood reminds me of a quote by the great Indian writer Tagore, who called the monument, “a tear on the face of eternity.”
I leave the enclosure, circle the building one more time, and go to reclaim my shoes from the shoe man. I dry my feet and put on my socks and shoes. They feel very good. I then start to explore the grounds to look for good sketching spots. I am very surprised to find a river with receding countryside immediately behind the Taj. It is a very interesting view and I decide to start sketching here. The guards did not allow me to bring my cushion in so I am limited to places where there are benches because of the wetness. My first sketch includes a couple of camels and a group of men digging a strange hole across the river. It turns out OK. The second focuses on a turn in the river and a small Islamic structure on the far side. My audience today consists primarily of guards. Two of them seem to get into an argument over my work. I can’t understand what they are saying but they point to the landscape and then back to my sketches in a heated discussion. One seems to be defending the work and the other doesn’t seem to like it. It goes on for quite a while and then dies down and they leave. The second sketch is going well and then for some strange reason I decide to try an over wash and I dissolve my under colors making a mess of the sketch. I pack up and decide to move to a location where I can tackle the Taj itself. I realize that to approach it frontally would be doom. There is no way to convey the true beauty of the building, not with painting and not with photography. It can only be experienced. I decide to try some compositions doing fragments of the Taj with foliage from the surrounding gardens. I settle in on a bench and a young guard comes over and joins me. He is very personable and speaks English well. He becomes my personal guard and sits with me through two sketches until a superior comes and takes him away. The sketches go very well – what fun.
I decide to take a break and go to a museum that is on the grounds not far from where I’m sitting. It is supposed to have a good collection of Mughal miniature paintings from the time of Shah Jahan. I pay my entrance fee and go in. It is very dark, so dark that I can’t see the paintings at all. It turns out that the electricity has been out for an hour. One would think they could have told me that before I paid to go in. I decide to come back later.
I make my way to the other side of the garden and find another nice view. Two more sketches flow very quickly and enjoyably. It is noon and I decide to go back to the museum. The electricity is still off. I was planning to go to Agra Fort tomorrow morning but now with my prepaid ticket that has to be used today I decide to alter my plans and go to the fort this afternoon.
I find my way out of the Taj Mahal grounds and look for a place to eat from one of my guide books. I find one quite close by. It is dingy, but so are most of them. I order vegetable pakora for a snack, a dish I had several times at Pole to Pole. While I wait I watch two Indian couples and their young children. Two of the children are about the age of my grandson, Gabe, and they remind me of how much I miss him. The order finally comes, I ask them for some of the tomato sauce I am accustomed to eating with it. They say they have none and then bring me a dish with what looks like the sauce. I sprinkle the food with it and take a bite. It is almost impossible to describe the results. It isn’t really hot, it is more like I have taken a mouthful of acid. I still don’t know if there was a large pocket of boiling grease in the deep fried food or the sauce was acidic or a combination of both. The pain was excruciating. Fortunately, I had ordered a liter of mineral water which I consumed immediately. I get up to pay and leave. I can feel the flesh dissolving in my mouth – a very strange feeling. I find an auto rickshaw and head for Agra Fort.
As we approach the fort I am amazed at the scale of the exterior walls. My driver wants to wait for me, which I say is fine. I maneuver through the entry process and get by the “guides” and make my way to the interior. Built by the great Mughal emperor Akbar in the 16th century, it is a remarkable achievement in spatial design, architecture and aesthetics. There is courtyard after courtyard surrounded by wonderful Muslim architecture. Some of the most beautiful living quarters were built on the side of the fort facing the Taj Mahal, and it is said that the emperor’s favorite wives received the bedrooms with the best views. In the courtyards the ponds and the fountains are all dry and there is only a minimal attempt at gardening. The buildings are also in very poor shape and there is much evidence of semiprecious stone inlay work that has been dug out, again some of it very recently. What a loss to the world this neglect is. I close my eyes and envision what this place must have been during its high points – the beauty of the gardens, the ponds, the fountains, the gleaming white marble with its dazzling inlay work, the polished red sand stone. It must have been one of the most beautiful environments ever created. I walk the grounds several times enjoying what is here and letting my imagination fill in what was here. I am tempted to do some sketching and then I decide to let the sketching aspect of the trip end with the Taj Mahal which was a real high point. I do take many photographs.
I make my way back to my driver and decide to take in one more of the sites on my day pass that is not too far away, I’timas-ud-Daulah. It is sometimes called the “Baby Taj” in that it is a smaller mausoleum and also in white, inlaid marble. It is very beautiful. It is balanced on all four sides by red sandstone mosque-like structures, two of which are crumbling in decay, but there is some restoration work being done on them. At this site a young man provides cloth covers for shoes so I don’t have to take them off – a very welcome innovation. The inlay work on the structure is gorgeous. In some areas I think it is actually superior to the inlay design on the Taj Mahal. Unlike the Taj they allow photography close to and in the mausoleum. The building is badly deteriorating. As an artist it is very difficult for me to see such incredible beauty and craftsmanship not being properly cared for and preserved. I stroll the once lavish gardens around the structure. Again, the ponds are dry, the fountains are merely fixtures, and garbage and debris abound.
I have my driver take me back to the Taj Mahal where I said I would meet my first driver of the day. Sure enough, Lala is waiting. I pay my driver generously. He wants more. I give a little more. I ask Lala if he knows of any good bookstores. He says he does and takes me to a series of them. I find nothing remotely as good as the wildlife book I purchased in Varanasi. I’m very happy I went back for it now. Lala asks if I would like to see some good marble products, for which Agra is very famous. I say sure and off we go. He takes me to a high-end marble shop and state sponsored craft school. The manager takes me through the school and then into an enclosed salesroom with high-end merchandise. He shows me a four-foot high model of the Taj Mahal that he says his grandfather made. He claims it is the largest most accurate model of the Taj ever made. The shop is full of wonderful inlaid marble table tops and huge bowls and plates. It is obviously far out of my price range. He then takes me to a less expensive salesroom but nothing there really catches my eye. I nearly have to fight my way out. If the United States thinks it has “hard sell” salesmen they need to come to India to take some lessons. I tell Lala that I’m looking for Indian embroidery work and he takes me to another series of shops. The embroidery I find is not what I’m looking for. It is 3-D coarse crewel-like work of peacocks and elephants done on black velvet – Elvis move over.
One shop has some nice women’s long shirt and pants combos and I would like to get one for Sammy. They quote me a high price. I give them what I will pay (I pretty much have the system figured out now). They say no. I walk out. They send someone after me – OK – OK.
I go to several more shops where they also have four-foot models of the Taj Mahal remarkably similar to the one done by my first salesman’s grandfather – he must have been a very busy man. At one shop I notice a very nice selection of Indian paintings. I ask them what they have in paintings of Radha and Krishna. Krishna is the Hindu blue-skinned god of love who is one of the manifestations of the god Vishnu and Radha is his consort. The salesman pulls out a half dozen paintings. One small painting stands out like a gem. They are all priced on the back and this one is five times more than any of the others, it is also ten times better and in the classic Rajput style. I ask for a magnifying glass and I examine the painting closely. Every stroke is hand-done with incredible surety of style. I ask the artist’s name and they say it is Lalit Mohon. He is a Hindu painter in the Rajput tradition, about 60 years old. I make the salesman an offer I think he will turn down. He goes and consults with his uncle the owner. He comes back with a price only slightly higher than my offer and I take it. It is a wonderful painting.
I have Lala take me back to the hotel. He says he will pick me up at 7:30 p.m. and take me to a good restaurant. I still don’t feel like eating because of the pain in my mouth, but I haven’t really eaten all day and I know I should. I say OK. I go to my room and look at my tongue in the bathroom mirror – sure enough the left side is badly blistered. It will take some time to heal.
I rest for a while and then go out to meet Lala. He takes me to a decent restaurant and I order Chinese. The food is good but it is very uncomfortable to eat. I try to keep the food on the right side of my mouth and I do manage to get some of it down. I have Lala take me back to the hotel and I arrange with him to pick me up at 9:00 a.m. to finish my gift-buying before starting my journey home. I am exhausted and in addition to the pain in my mouth I have considerable swelling in the glands in my neck and it is getting difficult to swallow. I have no idea what that is all about. I will be very glad to get home.
I wake often in the night but I do manage to get some sleep. When I do get out of bed at 7:00 a.m. I am really quite pleased that my condition has not worsened overnight. My tongue actually feels better. It is very tender and raw but the continual pain has stopped. I know I will be in airplanes and terminals for the better part of the next two days so I decide to take a shower. No hot water this morning – one more cold shower. I pack as I did last time, stuffing my day bag with all that I wish to return with for sure. I try to call room service for some breakfast. My phone doesn’t work this morning. I eat the last of my peanut butter and crackers. The power is constantly off and on. The hotel’s generator seems a bit weak.
At 9:00 a.m. I’m out of the hotel and faithful Lala is there waiting for me. I ask to go to clothing and toy stores. I try to buy some men’s Indian shirts but they don’t have the sizes I need. The shops all want to make me some. They will be ready in three hours. Not soon enough, OK – they will be ready in one hour. I envision workers being harassed to great speed in some sweat shop out back and I decline. You would think that leaving a shop without buying something the greatest sin one can commit in India by the way many salespeople act. Next we try some toy stores. They are a complete waste of time. They have all plastic Western-like toys. None of the wonderful painted wood toys like the tiger I bought in Rajgir. One salesman insists that I need to buy a Barbie doll. I can’t help it. I have to laugh out loud. Time is getting short and I have Lala take me to a moderately priced marble shop. There I buy for the rest of my gift list. As I wait for my marble items to be well wrapped for the trip I have a conversation with the salesman and another customer. I ask them if the green uniformed men with the bolt-action rifles I have been seeing all over India are army or policemen. It turns out they are policemen and, yes, they carry WWI vintage bolt-action rifles. Talk turns to my travels in Bihar and my salesman says most Indians won’t travel there as it is too dangerous and lawless. That is certainly consistent with what I heard while I was there and would explain why I was the only Westerner in Rajgir.
Lala gets me back to my room and I make arrangements for him to take me to the airport at noon. I finish my packing, check out, and we are off to the airport. My plane is not supposed to leave until 4:00 p.m. but I don’t really care. I had to get out of my room by noon and I am bushed. I am through with India. The airport seems like a fine place to spend the afternoon. Just to get into the gate of the airport takes some time and patience with the security. When we arrive at the terminal I pay Lala 500 rupees for his two days of being my driver and guide and make my way to the Indian Airlines desk. The agent there says my plane is now leaving at 2:00 p.m. and I am very glad I came this early. I get my bags through security and bring them to the check-in counter. The agent looks at my ticket and says, “Delhi, I thought you said Varanasi. You don’t leave until 5:00 p.m.” Fine, no problem — I settle in. This terminal has long padded benches and I make myself comfortable by lying down and using my day bag as a pillow. At 2:00 p.m. as I am in a near slumber an Indian Airlines employee comes around, wakes me up and tries to put me on the Varanasi flight. I tell him, no, I’m going to Delhi.
After some time a mountain of luggage arrives at the terminal to go through security. About an hour later three luxury buses pull up full of German tourists. Everything is very orderly and all has been taken care of for them. They simply need to get on their chartered plane to get to their next stop. I think how different my experience of India would have been had I decided to take a similar tour. I certainly would not have had as much frustration, aggravation, pain and even terror, but I also would have missed a great deal of the richness, variety and depth of experience I have had on this trip. In spite of all that has happened, I am glad I traveled as I did.
At 4:00 p.m. I check my duffel and find that the flight has been delayed until 6:00 p.m. So what, it doesn’t phase me a bit. I must say that the Indian Airlines agent that I have been dealing with is really the most pleasant one of the trip — very gracious with each delay. I still have plenty of time to make my Swiss Air connection in Delhi which is scheduled to leave at 2:00 a.m. Even Indian Airlines can get me there by then. This terminal has been the best one in India so far. It is clean, has a nice snack bar, and gift shop, and to top it off Western toilets. I’m quite comfortable here. At 6:00 p.m. we finally get moving and go through personal security. I go through the body frisking with a mute guard except for his persistent hacking. A woman guard wants to search my day bag – fine. She takes everything out and then comes to my flashlight, which has been there though every security check I have gone through on this trip. She says I have to take the batteries out and check them and pick them up in Delhi. It is the last I will see of those batteries but I really don’t care. I am called out to the tarmac to have my duffel checked again. As they check my bag I notice that they have it labeled, “Mr. Mark.” That seems to be following me. The check goes fine and I go back to the boarding waiting room. I look out on the runway and sure enough there is the same wired-together dilapidated plane waiting for me, but this time it has a blood-red sunset behind it. I decide to take a photo to use in a slide presentation I plan to give back at my university. I position myself and raise my camera to take the shot and I here a very loud, “No!” shouted at me. I look with astonishment and a guard repeats the command to me with his hand on his weapon. The crowd looks at me to see if I have a gun and when they see it is my camera they seem as confused as I am. Needless to say, I don’t argue but quietly put my camera away.
As we get ready to board the plane I notice a lovely young Indian woman. Something about her reminds me of an Indian version of my daughter, Jessica. She is saying goodbye to either her husband or boyfriend. We walk to the plane side by side and I make the comment to her that she seems to be leaving her loved ones and I am returning to mine. She gives me a smile and asks me where I’m from in America. She says she has relatives living in South Carolina. We board the plane and it is open seating. I am tempted to sit by the young woman so we can continue our conversation but I’m concerned that it might seem too forward by Indian standards. I find an empty seat elsewhere.
The decaying plane takes off. It is only about a 45-minute flight and it took me farther than that last time. We land and I know I have one more hurtle to jump. The domestic terminal and the international terminal are separated by a long distance in Delhi and I will need to negotiate transportation. While waiting for my bag the young woman comes over to me and we strike up our conversation again. She seems excited to find out I am a painter and that I have been in India researching and sketching. She is a professional singer. It may have been the poise of a performer that made me think of Jesse. We have a very nice talk as we worry about our bags surfacing and, as usual, mine comes along last. She asks me for my name and address and I gladly give her one of my cards and we say our goodbyes.
I head out into the frenzy of taxi drivers and begin the haggling. The first one wants 400 rupees – oh yeah, sure. As I begin bargaining the young woman approaches me again, she has two young men with her. She wants me to meet her brother who has come to the airport to pick her up. We have a nice little chat and I go back to my taxi drivers. The brother then comes back and says they are going very close to the international airport and they would be glad to give me a lift. I say no, no, but – thank goodness – they persist.
We make our way to the parking lot with my huge duffel in tow. After some effort we find his tiny car. With her bags, my mammoth bag and four people I see no way for us all to fit. No problem, the men say and they cram and jam until it is all in. I am trying to hold one of her bags on my lap but they won’t hear of it, and the brother’s friend takes it on his lap. It is a long drive to the international airport, and we have a talk about my trip and some of my impressions of India. It turns out that the young woman has came to Delhi from Agra where she lives. She is here to help with her brother’s wedding. It was her husband I saw in Agra. He is a pilot with the Indian Air Force. The brother looks to be in his mid-thirties and says that he really does not want to get married but his parents have insisted and arranged the marriage. He is the only son of the family and it is his responsibility to carry on the family name and lineage. He says in Indian marriages it is usually about the time of the birth of the first child when married couples begin to know each other. It strikes me as strange that divorce is infrequent here compared to the United States where we have free choice of who we marry. It may go back to the Hindu concept of Dharama – tradition, obligation and social order.
The brother gives me his card and the sister writes her address on another one. At the airport they all get out and the friend runs and gets a luggage cart for me. I very gratefully bid them all farewell and head into the terminal. I think to myself what a fine way this is to end my interaction with the Indian people on such a wonderfully positive note.
The Delhi airport is just as dirty as I remember it on my quick pass through on my way to Patna. The Swiss Air check-in desk is still closed so I roam around a bit and then go and get a little dinner at the restaurant. In the restaurant is a monitor with flight departures and I see my flight with a time change. Instead of the 2:10 a.m. departure it is listed as a 12:30 departure. This is great. I will have two less hours to wait. I make my way back to the waiting area and I am feeling in general pretty smug and content with myself in that in a few hours I will be in the hands of Swiss Air and out of India. At about 10:00 p.m. I see a line rapidly forming at the Swiss Air counter. I get my cart and hustle on over. I am standing behind a group of German men and I mention to one of them that I’m glad the plane is going to depart early. He looks at me like I’m a bit crazy and says, “Early, what do you mean? It is going to be 10 hours late.” It is another silly American mistake. The rest of the world does not use our foolish a.m. and p.m. system. If the plane had been leaving at what I thought was 12:30 the sign would have read 00:30. India is not done with me yet. The reason given for the delay is fog. There is no fog whatsoever, so I must assume that it is a chain reaction delay. I hear through the line that they will be putting passengers up for the night at their expense. That is little compensation. The line seems to get longer and it moves extremely slowly with everyone needing to rework their schedules. I strike up a long conversation with a young man from Brazil who has been traveling in India for three months. I say that I am amazed at the length of his travels and he says that is nothing. He has met people who have been traveling in the country for more than a year. I can’t even begin to fathom that. We swap India stories and after about 90 minutes I make it to the front. As soon as I arrive the agent’s computer goes down – more waiting. Finally, she is ready. She says they have reworked my entire schedule but I will have to stay over in Zurich. At first I think she means Delhi, but then I come to understand she means Delhi and Zurich. All my flights have been changed. I ask her to check again – there must be a better way. No, they have checked all possibilities. This is the only way. I ask if all my new seats are confirmed and guaranteed with no stand-by status anywhere. She assures me all is taken care of. I make sure that my lodging and meals in Zurich will also be paid by Swiss Air. Again, it has all been taken of. I am crushed. Not only will this add an entire day to my travel, but it will make me miss my son’s birthday on Sunday. He is driving to Warner from Minneapolis to celebrate with us. I certainly have found that you can make plans in India but then India will make her own plans for you.
I make my way to a direct-dial phone to give Sammy the news – I really dread it. She is extremely let down. Hearing her voice makes me feel even worse. I do maintain my composure. I make my way back to the spot where all the Swiss Air passengers are waiting for the shuttle bus to the hotel. We wait another hour and a half while all the passengers are processed. The bus leaves and it is a long ride. It seems to be a more modern side of town with night clubs and hotels. Delhi is a city of 11 million people – nearly four million more than New York City if one has the imagination to project that. Those 11 million people are contained within a 50 kilometer by 50 kilometer area. My imagination cannot fathom that. We finally arrive at the hotel – the Taj Palace. It is definitely 5 star – very posh indeed. I get settled in my room and it has mahogany furniture with a very large writing desk and sofa. In the closet hangs a silk robe. I think of all the little worms that perished to make it possible. The airline has made us check our bags so I have no pajamas. I decide to sleep in the robe and say a little prayer thanking the worms – my, they do make lovely fabric. It is 1:30 a.m. and it is 2:00 a.m. before I get to sleep. I have a 7:00 a.m. wake up call in as we are to be back on the shuttle bus at 9:00 a.m.
The call wakes me and I have a nice hot shower. A note has been shoved under the door that details the breakfast and departure process for the Swiss Air passengers. We are relegated to the breakfast buffet. I have always disliked buffets but I will manage. It is very interesting to observe a very different level of Indian society than what I have been primarily interacting with – these are the very wealthy. Stretch Mercedes Benz limousines wait outside. I have always considered New York City to be the most polarized place between the rich and the poor that I have ever been. It pales before the gap here. As we breakfast in opulence, how many are in abject poverty in this 50-kilometer square area, how many million?
On the shuttle bus ride back to the airport, I see a little more than I could in our night drive. We are still on the outskirts of this megalopolis. Agricultural land actually sneaks in between some of the development. There are many huge shabby apartment complexes that are fenced and gated. We finally make it to the airport, and it has seen better days as well. There are the ruins of gardens, ponds and fountains that used to decorate the grounds. The only fountain now is a man standing and urinating amongst the garbage.
Check-in goes well and I get the Swiss air clerks to reconfirm that all my new flights are confirmed and that I am not on stand-by status anywhere. It is all in the computer, all the way through. I have no problems going through customs and browse the duty-free shops to kill some time – booze, cigarettes, cigars, perfumes and sunglasses, not exactly the kind of merchandise that interests me. I make my way through personal security and find the gate listed on my boarding pass. It is a 90-minute wait and I can’t see what the big hurry was to get us out of the hotel this morning. I wait and they start boarding. I get in line and find that they have printed the wrong gate on my boarding pass – this is not my flight. Fortunately my flight has not left but is boarding. I nearly missed it!
The plane is large and comfortable. The food is edible and the flight attendants are constantly trying to get us to drink liquors or liquids. I am seated next to a very amiable middle-aged Indian man who turns out, rather ironically, to be an upscale travel agent that mainly deals with Germans and Italians. He is on his way to a tourism conference in Europe. I tell him some of my travel stories in India and acknowledge that I think an internal travel agent is essential in India. He asks if I had any encounters with beggars and I tell him a few of my stories from Bodh Gaya. He says that many beggars work for beggar “businesses” set up by individuals that bring in a good deal of money around tourist and pilgrim sites. He says some beggars have quite nice bank accounts. My thoughts go back to a Charles Dickens story I once read of such a business in England. It was about a man who led two separate lives. One as a highly effective beggar and the other life as a middle-class man with a family, living off his income as a beggar.
The travel agent says he was really quite pleased to hear of the delay of the plane as this would give us the opportunity of flying over the mountains of Afghanistan in the daylight. He is certainly right. There is a silver-lining to this delay as there have been to others on this trip. The landscape of the mountains is dazzling with incredible textural and color diversity. It is a most enjoyable bonus. The seven and a half hour flight to Zurich seems very long indeed. My discussion with my new friend takes some interesting turns to Buddhism and Hinduism. He talks of some of his experiences leading tour groups to the headwaters of the Ganges in the Himalayas.
There seems to be a very large number of small children and babies seated around us and as head winds lengthen the flight to nearly nine hours the poor children get quite restless. I can empathize. I am getting restless, too. I spend quite a bit of time playing peak-a-boo with a one-year-old in the seat in front of me. We do finally arrive and my travel agent friend and I go to pick up our bags together and say our farewells.
I make my way to the Swiss Air desk to pick up my hotel and meals voucher and get transportation to the hotel. To my shock the clerk tells me that they will not issue me a voucher. She insists that should have been done that in Delhi. I will have to pay for my room and meals and whoever issued me my ticket will have to reimburse me. Well, it has been a very long trip. I finally lose it. I am angry, very angry! In a loud and agitated voice I say that I have been jerked around enough and it will end right here. There is a man in the same predicament next to me and he simply stops and listens to me. I keep it up and tell them that they are going to give me my voucher for a room and meals and provide me with transportation to the hotel and I am not moving an inch until it is in my hand. I am drawing a crowd and the Swiss Air people seem nervous. A man leaves for a few minutes and comes back with my vouchers and a voucher for the man next to me, and, as it ends up, vouchers for a half dozen people that follow me in the same circumstances from Delhi. Before I leave I apologize to the young woman I was dealing with for losing my temper. I do feel bad about it. I also feel bad that it was probably the only way I could have gotten an equitable resolution to the problem.
We all get on a shuttle bus to the Swissotel in downtown Zurich. It is not as posh as the Taj Palace but very nice. In most ways even more tasteful. The furniture of the rooms is done in Swiss modern with beautiful woodworking and leather. The art throughout the entire hotel is all original modern and much of it is very good. I eat the buffet, which we are relegated to again and then bundle up as much as I can and go out for a walk on my first and very short visit to Switzerland. It is a wonderful old shopping neighborhood directly across from a modern train station where gleaming double-decker trains carry well dressed passengers. There is a very nice mix of shops and I’m delighted to find two old-style art supply stores with displays of paint sets and pastels in the windows. I make my way back to the hotel and to bed. I look at my watch and calculate the time in South Dakota. I should be home with my family right now.
I rise and shower in my spotless marble bathroom complete with shampoos, lotions, huge fluffy towels, a hair dryer, coffee maker and infinitely adjustable hot water. This is a very long way, in many ways, from how I started this trip. I fix myself a cup of mint tea and eat a complimentary orange. I make my way down to the breakfast buffet and get quite a surprise. I have never seen a breakfast buffet like this before. There is champagne, smoked salmon, and every imaginable kind of breakfast food you can think of and some you wouldn’t think of. Yes, I overeat. I go back up to my room and pack. I want to be at the airport early to be ready to contend with whatever Swiss Air has in store for me today. I still have a sore mouth and swollen glands but I feel quite good. I feel confident I will be home by the end of the day.
I get to the shuttle bus and wait for it to fill. Already on the bus are two large, well built, young British men. They strike up a conversation with each other and find they are both in the same business, private security. They are both mercenaries. They have both worked all over Europe. One says that he couldn’t believe it last night when he heard on the TV that Arkan, a Serb paramilitary leader accused of war crimes in Bosnia and Croatia, had been killed – three bullets in the head. He says that he was part of Arkan’s personal security group for some time, and he thought Arkan was real nice guy. My eyes are obviously widening as I listen to this story and the girl sitting next to me starts to giggle. The two mercenaries look at me and the one says, “Hey, it was just a job.” I say, “Fine.” They continue their chat. One is flying to South Africa for the wedding of one of his mercenary buddies there. The other talks of his new house on the Mediterranean that he has purchased so he has a place to go when he needs to relax. There seems to be good money in their business but I wonder what the average life span is?
At the airport I reach the Swiss Air desk to check in for my flight. She tells me I do not have a confirmed seat on the flight. I am on stand-by. I take a minute to collect myself and I tell her I am not on stand-by. I have a confirmed seat and I want my boarding pass now. She can tell by my voice that I am fairly serious about this. She gives me a boarding pass but says I will get my seat assignment at the gate. I will compromise that far. I go to the gate and stand my ground until I am assigned a seat. I then go and sit down to wait.
The plane is full. I sit by a pleasant young mechanical engineer from Indianapolis who has been doing business with the Swiss and Germans. The seven-hour flight to Chicago is uneventful except for two young Russians who get terribly drunk on the airline liquor and harass the flight attendants all the way for more drinks. One is so inebriated by the time we get to the airport that he can’t get off the plane.
In Chicago I make my way through passport clearance and customs and take the shuttle train to the Northwest terminal. As I feared, I am not in the computer for my Aberdeen flight. The Northwest clerk is most helpful and not only gets me on the flight but also gets me into Aberdeen two wonderful hours earlier than originally scheduled. There is a $75.00 charge for switching the Northwest flights that Swiss Air should have paid but did not. I pay it and plan to let my agent back home try to get a refund for me. Both the flight to Minneapolis from Chicago and the commuter flight to Aberdeen are uneventful. As we begin to descend into Aberdeen I feel very tired and numb. I have had more than 50 hours of planes, airports, hotels and buses to get home. We land and I bundle up as well as possible to protect me from the South Dakota cold that I know awaits outside the plane. When I reach the tiny terminal after my cold walk across the tarmac Sammy is waiting for me inside. After a long embrace I feel her warmth penetrate my clothing and I know I am home.
The trip left me reeling both physically and mentally. For several days after my return I thought I was queasy and confused due to jet lag. Soon it became evident that my stomach and intestinal problems were more than that. I had brought back more than gifts from India. I went for tests. The first batch showed nothing but I remained in the same shape. I went in for more tests for more exotic possibilities. At the time of writing this, two weeks after my return, I still await results and I am still nauseous. Mentally, this trip did not leave me either. For nearly two weeks every night I returned to India in my dreams to do travel battles. My doctor said it was possibly a mild form of Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome. The dreams have eased now but I do feel permanently changed by the trip.
It is too early to assess the full impact of the varied experiences I had in my three weeks in India but I do have some immediate reflections on the journey. When I look at my original plans and detailed itinerary I had made for the trip it seems almost laughable. I’m sure my planning actually had some benefits for me, but to try to impose that kind of plan on India is sheer arrogance. I truly believe now that to experience India one should never try to impose one’s will on her. You must let India unfold for you at her own pace. I had planned to visit 10 sites. I visited six and that may have been too many for three weeks. I thought I could handle my own travel needs. I definitely needed the help of internal travel agents.
As I look back at my expectations going into this trip I see that they have all been more than fulfilled. Although the pilgrimage aspect of the trip was shortened to only half the sites of the Buddha that I wished to visit, the spiritual dimension of the trip surpassed my wildest expectation. My week in Bodh Gaya at Mahabodhi Temple was filled with such spiritual depth and richness – the spectacular pujas, the blissful meditations, the sketching that became a form of devotion, and most of all the two wonderful young monks that became my teachers. Losang, who modeled for me loving kindness, compassion, generosity, and selflessness beyond anything I have ever experienced. And second, my young Tibetan painting companion who modeled friendship and gratitude with such sincerity and openness. The lessons these two young men taught me linger on in my mind. These were important teachings on Buddhist virtues and also lessons on how to teach. I hope I can learn them well. On the altar in my studio now stands the three inch remnant of the candle Losang gave me in Bodh Gaya. It is a reminder of those lessons. I also feel that if I am ever deeply stressed I can light that candle and little of Losang’s warmth and kindness will be there to comfort me.
The research dimension of the trip went exceedingly well. The books on the Jataka Tales have enlarged my sources immensely. I am confident I now have the great majority of the stories and that I can select and merge versions and come up with the collection that I will illustrate. For visual sources I have the photography that I did at various sites but especially the series of landscapes that I did in my walk through the countryside with Vinya. The large wildlife book from Varanasi will also be most valuable when I begin my paintings.
The sketching aspect of the trip, which was almost an after thought in my planning, became a real focal point. Both in Bodh Gaya and at the Ganges I felt the sketching had a devotional dimension that I have never experienced before. And beyond that they were also great fun to do. The process of sketching also opened up the unplanned benefit of meeting people who would have certainly ignored just another Western tourist. As this is the first time I have ever really sketched in public I am curious if this will be true in other places as well. The directness and immediacy of the sketches are so different from the lengthy research projects I have been focusing on for the past 20 years. I find them a wonderful balance to that more “serious” work. As I look at the development of the sketches over the three weeks I can see some definite improvement in confidence and technique. I am looking forward to continuing that evolution. Sketching will definitely be a part of my travel plans in the future.
The journey was certainly also tourism. My exposure to other cultures was profound, deep and meaningful. As the journal repeatedly points out, India is a country of extremes unlike any I have encountered. The trip was an onslaught of emotional experiences. I deeply felt love and anger, fear and warmth, terror and bliss, aggravation and contentment, confusion and harmony. Physically I also had many ups and downs. Pain and comfort rotated in various degrees of intensity.
This trip did a great deal to teach a quality that I was in much need of developing – patience. India demands patience. People often do things more slowly than we in the United States are accustomed to. Bureaucratic processes are unbelievably snail-paced. Transportation all seems to run on one- to four-hour delays. India will not be hurried except on its horrible roads, where, in spite of the frenzied pace, it still takes enormous amounts of time to cover small distances. Day by day on the trip I found myself becoming more and more tolerant of delays and learning to make the best of them. This only broke down at the end when my heart was at home but my body was in transit.
Undoubtedly one of the most profound lessons of the trip was that of gratitude. This trip taught, sometimes with crushing examples, what a fortunate person I am. I daily thought how blessed I was to have a loving wife, children and grandchild. I recognized how thankful I should be to have a job that I love to do and that supports me so well. How grateful I should be to live in a region where we have law, order and safety and that while we still have economic inequities we do not have the crushing, vast poverty I witnessed in India. I have learned to appreciate our sanitation and the fact that we dispose of garbage rather than live in it. I look on our roads in a whole new way and appreciate the regulations we have in using them. I am grateful for our still inadequate attempts to stop pollution and create an ecological balance. I deeply appreciate this country’s attempt to preserve our national treasures and I will never look at a museum quite the same way again. I am certainly not embarrassed to be an American. I kept my cap and jeans on through the trip partially to make that point. For all it’s flaws the United States is a wonderful place to live – a really wonderful place.
With all the problems I had on my trip one might wonder if I plan to return to India. To be honest, I do not see it as an option not to return. I truly see Mahabodhi Temple as the geographic center of my spiritual life. I feel a need to return there for the spiritual energy and guidance it can provide me. My feelings right now are that I would like to return about every five years. I’m sure that I did not make all the mistakes a person could make in my travels, but I certainly made quite a few. I feel on return trips I can make the travel considerably more comfortably and safely while not over sanitizing the experience of India.
I have decided to put this journal in print for my family, friends and students as many want to know how the trip went. This journal certainly explains that. I would like to be clear that my experience of India was very small. This great Asian sub-continent and its one billion people have an endless variety of which I only sampled in the few places. I do not think that my experiences were all that unusual. I’m sure many people have had more extreme experiences than I did. I must say that mine were certainly intense enough for a “quiet person” such as myself. As I reread the journal I wonder if I should subtitle it “toilet talk?”