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Archive for January, 2010

Sarnath, India

Historic Sarnath

After a few days of the Hindu holy city of Varanasi I was ready for the  more (maybe perceived)  subdued nature of Buddhism.  So Jack, a personal chief from rural Texas, overland adventure, and practitioner or many great religions including a very devoted period as a practicing Muslim, an English chap who travels much more then he works, and I hired an auto rickshaw (three wheels, two rear – one front,  vehicle built around a small motor with motorcycle type steering and a semi enclosed seat in back) and headed to my third major pilgrimage site of Sarnath. A car was recommended as the trip was nearly and hour, but going 40kmh at full throttle while marveling at the sights with friends was a blast. We nicked one cow, but the holy animal, our vehicle, and all aboard were intact; we had a good laugh with our driver as to the nature of our collective bad Karma if we had actually killed the animal that gives rise to the incarnations of nearly 33 million gods in Hinduism (this is one reasons cows are holy, they are the birth vehicle for gods).  Jack and I sat in the back and he told me about his plan to drive his custom built rig from Texan to Tierra del Fuego at the tip of Argentina, south America. “You are kidding my right, that is the same trip I have been dreaming about for years but I hoped to do it by motorcycle”. After comparing notes on a lot of other plans – like sailing around the world, we realized we were not alone on this planet with some crazy ass ideas regarding how to live life. Later I reviewed Jack’s web site and discovered he was beyond my dreaming about stage and was actively building this wild self contained vehicle, and making plans to point south and depress the pedal; Good luck Jack, I will see you on this crazy road again.

Historic  Stupa

Upon arrival in Sarnath we were swarmed by children begging, men wanting to serve as our guide, and all types of trinket sells people.  Straight to ticket off, and inside gate – safe.  Ok, outside is certainly not unsafe, it is however draining, often intimidating, and frequently  frustrating.  Sarnath is the sight where the last (there were others before, and there will be others in the future) Buddha (Sidhartha) taught his first teaching after achieving enlightenment in Boda Gaya. The site mostly consist of an excavated archeological site that once housed a great stupa in honor of the enlightened one. Like, Lumbini, and Kushinagar, Sarnath also supports monasteries from many Buddhist countries. Given the time constraints of my companions we kept our visit brief, but spinning the now familiar prayer wheels at the Tibetan monastery while repeating the mantra felt comforting amongst the humanity that is India.

Dogs and pups hanging out

Being largely anti-religious (angrily so, some would argue…correctly) I have been drawn to Buddhism since my 2006 thru – hike of the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail.  After hiking 2600 miles and debating the nature of god or the lack there of with myself and my companions, I became intrigued with something my friend Nate (Sunny) had said: “You know go-big (my trail name), I have never once heard you say anything inconsistent with my limited knowledge of Buddhism, I think you should check it out when you get home”. I did not give it much more thought after that until I unexpectedly got divorced and found myself once again completely lost and rudderless.  Ultimately, I shook the poor poor pitiful me bullshit and found myself at a Buddhist retreat near Santa Cruz.  The rituals were stupid, the vegetarian food mediocre, the women uninterested in, the room shabby, but the teaching of the straight talking Australian Nun (Robina Courtin) to be spot on with my fundamental beliefs and experiences. As typical, I left the retreat with new found focus, perspective and interest; I bought books, I downloaded teachings….and I did not do a damn bit of reading or listening or any type of follow-up.  Then I end up in Nepal using the Himalayas as the reason for the trip; “Funny, sure are a lot of Buddhist in those mountains, and I sure like their Monasteries?”  Now, without planning, I find myself being drawn to Boda Gaya (the place Buddha, awakened into enlightenment).

For Chryss

So the seed that was planted years ago was apparently starting to ripen. A few weeks back I had also heard that His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet was going to be giving a teaching in Boda Gaya, and the timing could actually work for my schedule.  “Humm, how is it that I have been to three of the most sacred sights of Buddhism, I am now eager to see the fourth, and the Dalai Lama is going to be there, wouldn‘t that be something”. Not that checking off sites has ever been all that important to me, or that  I am rarely if ever excited about seeing an unknown famous person – but these sites and this man (his smiling photo is everywhere ) have given this part of my trip some particular meaning and seeing it through is becoming important to me. Estimates suggested that 40-50 thousand people would be in Boda Gaya for the teaching and I was told that without a hotel booking (impossible to get now), I was running a fools gamble regarding finding lodging. So as is common practice now, I  rubbed my bracelet that Sara had given me and said to myself: “We are going, and it will either work our or it will not”.

Sleeping, not dead

The teachings are 12 days from now, and while Varanasi is alive with fascination and  frustration, I am ready to move on. But where to go?  It will be Christmas. A quick look at the map gave me my instant answer; Christmas should be cold so why not head back into the foothills of the Himalaya and go the famous former English hill station of Dargeeling, India.  Besides no-one goes to Dargeeling this time of the year.  I have a plan,

On my last day in Varanasi, Jack and I walked across the pontoon and bamboo bridge to the historic fort and remarkable but frightening weapon museum. We shake our heads in disbelieve as we noticed that the recently placed huge pillars for the new bridge over the Ganges are leaning.  Not leaning a little bit, but Tower of Pisa leaning; and know this was not per the design…that was obvious. As I stood their looking on while still shaking my head, I spontaneously said “Shit, these guys have a lot of nuclear weapons, and this contractor can’t build a bridge over the Ganges, I sure hope the nuke contractor got the off switch wired correctly”.  Instead of walking back we hired two very lucky fisherman to take us back across the river. Lucky because we nor they had change and thus they made more in an hour than they likely make in a week. The boat was river worthy but reeked of Ganges sludge that was all over the boat.  The first mate organized lines,  sorted the fish that should not be consumed by any man or beast given the guaranteed high levels or contaminants, and rinsed the fresh (not) water mussels that would be sold at market.

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Varanasi, India
Cow in street garbage

On the river Ganges, the sacred city of Varanasi is sensory overload. “Is that micro shop’s (maybe 3X4X5ft) shopkeeper really sitting in the lotus position while doing business by reaching over the cow lying in the alley; while a monkey swings from the wires above carrying undergarments, as a women chases the monkey with a broom while screaming in Hindi; while we eat samosa’s  (deep fried dumplings) directly from the boiling hot oil of a coal fire built atop an old paint can“? Yes, but of course he is! “Is that guy really peeing against the wall while that women washes her clothes and self in the Ganges; while that boy cleans chai tea cups in the same water as they are pushing the cremated remains (upwards of a hundred a day) bodies into: while the holy men smoke hash pipes with their nearly naked bodies are covered in bright orange and white pant and fully dusted in fire ash ”. Yes, but of course he is. “Are those guys really directing those trained pigeons with flags and walling noises while those boys try and cut each others kites atop the same roof that the guy is making buffalo crap fuel as the women sleeps on the more dried dung”? Yes, but of course they are. “Are those Muslim guys really cutting themselves and bleeding across the chest as they reenact the murder of one of their martyrs while others beat haunting drums and wail as we look down at the mayhem from the rooftop”?  Yes, but of course they are.  “Is that guy really feeding those hundreds of squealing frantic monkeys while more hundreds of Hindu wipe off the excess orange blessing paint onto the walls of the shrine so as it drips a brightly colored goo over the shrine“? Yes, but of course he is. Welcome.

Gulls and the Ganges

A 150rp ($3) room, all you can eat street food for under a dollar, new friends from around the world, sunrise and sunset boat rides on the filthy but somehow magical river; Varanasi will charm you or frustrate you – you decide.  Upon arriving at the train station 4 of found ourselves at the curb together, and we quickly made introductions, secured a rickshaw, and agreed to check out a guest house that one of the group had heard about….fast friends, and we spend the next 4 days traveling together; fantastic.

Hindu Holy man (Sadhu0

I needed to get a Hepatitis B booster and the guide book suggested that Varanasi had a very good western hospital. I walked across town along with the cows, water buffalo, taxis, auto rickshaws, bicycle rickshaws, thousands of people, hundreds of dogs, and dozens of monkeys until I found a good landmark in the local University. Then I began asking for directions.  The key to asking direction is to NEVER point or say is the Hospital “this way”.  The reason being is that people do not want you to loose face and thus if you act like you know where you are going they will often confirm your direction even if it is completely wrong.  So, keep your hands at your side and simply ask “do you know where the hospital is”.  The second key is do not go very far before you repeat this process.  After you ask a half dozen times a pattern will develop and you will get a since if you are on the right path. Regardless, keep asking and soon enough someone you ask will point up and laugh because you will be at your destination.

Vegetables, motorcycles, cow, and people

Upon finding and reflecting on the hospital, I am thinking the author maybe has never actually been in the west and seen a western hospital.  Regardless, the security guard recognized I was totally confused by the mass of human suffering in the waiting room and took me to see a doctor whom I showed my international vaccination card, and explained what I needed.  “No problem, you have the vaccine, I give you shot”. Humm, just so happens I am not carrying Hepatitis B vaccine in my backpack.  I explained this to rather large staff that was now interested in why this westerner was in their hospital, and they sent me to the pharmacy to secure the vaccine – that is different.  At the pharmacy, I explained again what I needed, showed them my shot history while they actually looked up the drug on a computer of all things….but no, we do not have any of that drug; in a country where Hepatitis is quite prevalent  “What is up with that Doc”? He simply shrugged, gave a slight head bobble and said: “We do not immunize in India, thus no drug”.

Man selling vegtables


Cows in alley

Ghats at sunrise

Bathing in the Ganges

Hindu women with Sadhu

For Janna

At sunset

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Welcome to India

Gorakhpur and Kushinagar, India
December 14, 2009
Welcome to India

The border crossing into India was chaotic and I was completely uncertain as to the requirements regarding checking out of Nepal and checking into the sub continent.  So I followed the mass of people and ultimately ended up at a jeep stand where rides were being offered to Gorakhpur – my next destination.  “Humm, seems like I missed something”.  I doubled back and found a lien-to that housed Indian Immigration and they reviewed my passport and visa and started to sign me into their country until I mistakenly inquired about signing out of Nepal. After lots of pointing, head bobbing (an Indian phenomenon that is neither a yes or no nod, rather it is a bobble from left to right and means any number of things depending on the situation). I shrugged my shoulders, pointed to my ears indicating I had no idea what they were saying, and simply followed the mass of people the other way; figured out that the only people who have to check in and check out are non-Indians and non-Nepali, everyone else just does what ever they want. Once on the Nepali side, again, I found a micro sign that pointed to the even more micro office, and after a silly amount of scrutiny given that I had just walked from Nepal into India and back to Nepal,  I was checked out of Nepal.  I walked once again back across border and after an even greater amount silly amount of scrutiny I was checked into India.

Protector of the Stupa

The contrast between these two countries was immediately apparent. While I had found Nepal wonderful it was nonetheless dirty, crowded and generally chaotic. That naturally was in contrast to beautiful California – In contrast to India, Nepal is a model of cleanliness, civility, and calm.  The first indication of this was when for 100rp (about a 2 to 1 exchange rate in India, thus 100rp is about $2.00) I secured a ride in a jeep to Gorakhpur. I was told this was a MUCH better and more comfortable option than a bus; then we put 15, yes that says fifteen, people in a 4 door jeep – 4 in front seat, 5 in back seat, 6 behind back seat.  I was in the back seat…in the middle of the back seat; two men on my left, and a woman and her son on my right. The ride was 3 hours and our young driver was, candidly, a little punk who drove completely out of control with the horn depressed a full two hours of the drive. Upon arrival he was adamant about a tip – I told him I needed my pack from the top of the jeep, mumbled to myself that you are on crack if you think you are getting a tip for making me a human sardine, and then trying to kill me.  I walked away with him shouting….likely calling me something rather poetic in Hindi.

Shops outside are less weathly

Upon arriving at the train station I set out to buy a ticket to Varanasi where I was planning on going in a few days after visiting the final resting place of Buddha (Kushinagar).  I had read the book on how to go about doing this, and I entered the station with great confidence and resolve.  An hour later I left the station with no ticket, a list of resentments, and a high level of frustration.  The fact that the guide book said there was an excellent information center only added to my frustrations because after asking dozen of people where it was I discovered it had been closed for a very long time; and my guide book had only been published a few weeks prior. I was not getting off to a particularly good start in India.

I figured I would try my luck at an Indian ATM as I was limited to the Indian rupees I had been able to secure in Nepal.  Tried taking money from checking account – Denied.  Tried taking money from savings account – Denied.  Tried other bank card – Denied, Denied.  On the fifth try, to the eye rolling of the security guard who was dealing with the 30 people in the queue who were about to kill the westerner, I tried taking money out of my “current” (what ever that is)  account and out spit 10,000rp (~$200). “Lets get out of this town all ready”.  I pre-paid (MISTAKE, as I lost all of your leverage) for a taxi and headed to my second major pilgrimage site of Buddhist. A few minutes into the trip the driver pulled into get petrol (which I later found out is typical as they never have any fuel in the cars) and insisted that I pay.  I just sat there and refused; once the queue started to back up and it was obvious I was not paying, he put a few litters into the car and we headed out.  Ten minutes later, he stops again and tells me that he “takes lunch”.  At this point I resulted to yelling…something about having to meet friends and pointing to my watch – we kept going. Upon arrival in Kushinagar, I felt instantly at ease as it was obviously a place of Buddhist pilgrims and thus much less insane…almost calm even. The driver, unbelievably, again insisted on a tip and as I walked away from the cab I again muttered to myself.  I then thought: “Ok, you need to figure this out or you will not make it a week here and you’re  are likely to kill someone if you do not adapt quickly.”

Remains of the old Stupa and Monastery

I had read that the Japanese monastery had very nice rooms available for a donation.  I found the monastery, confirmed with the gate man that they indeed had rooms available and sought out the Monk I needed to confirm with.  When I met the monk, he literally looked me up and down and then proceeded to lie and tell me they had no rooms available. Before this trip I held monks, like priest before them,  in the highest regard and many, even most, deserve this respect. But some are no better than pedophile Priest; I have seen them kick dogs and children on the street, and have heard many hide behind their robes and do much worse than that – they are people, most are good, some are not.  A guy on the street said he new a good place for me to stay, and given my options were limited in this small town I went to see the room; pretty much beyond description, but feces all around the squat toilet and tracked into the filthy room had me think better of touching anything let alone staying there.  My Tibetan friend Choezom told me if I was ever in need of help, I should find a Tibetan.  She actually said: “Indians sometimes helpful, Nepali most times helpful, Tibetan’s always helpful. Biased for sure, but I was in a jam. So while the guide book said the Tibetan monastery was marginal, I figured I would try and find a Tibetan. The care taker, an Indian and most likely Hindu,  quickly and pleasantly introduced me to one of the two monks who live there and I explained my friends from Tashling said I may seek lodging or assistance here.  “You are our welcomed guest, we can not offer much but what we have is yours”. The room was old and decrepit but they kept it clean and provided me the best blankets they had available.  I know they were the best because I saw theirs, full of holes, airing out. They also gave me anti mosquito smoke sticks, and candles as their power was very limited.  The toilet was outside, but clean and I took my turn at filling the large roof top water tank using the hand pump. Tibetan pilgrims from Ladak accompanied by their local Lama arrived the next day and I felt guilty as a dozen of them shared a room similar to my single occupant room. I asked if they needed extra space as I had more than enough, they simply looked at me like I was confused and explained they had more then enough also.

Final resting place of Sidhartha Buddha

Seeing the gold statue of the resting Buddha, and more importantly the reverence that pilgrims from around Asia gave the statue, I was moved in my understanding that this truly is a holy place. I found myself also kneeling, hands clasped, and head bowed out of respect.  I spoke with two Burma (Mirmar) monks who gave me a comprehensive overview of the historic significance of Kushinagar and then politely asked for a tip.  I find this often with the Indian monks, and the Burmese monks while the Nepali or Tibetan monks never ask for money. In fact, when you try to give them some, they often refuse. Regardless, I gave a donation and we parted ways friends.

I also learned a common scam prevalent throughout India; seems many restaurants or other businesses just never seem to have the correct change and suggest that if you come back for another meal they will have change or give you credit.  I fell for this a few times, but have now developed a better (for me anyway) strategy.  When they say they do not have the correct change, I simply say “That is not a problem as I may come back again and will pay my bill later“, or I tell them “That is ok, you can give me a mineral water for the road to make up the difference you owe me”.  Funny thing, they always seem to find change after that.   Please don’t get me wrong, I find the Indian people lovely with most being incredibly kind, generous, and honest.  But there is enough of the population, particularly around tourist areas, who are simply crooks that you have to keep your guard up…which is unfortunate as it can make you think less of the people as a whole.  My rule of thumb is: trust everyone with discretion, and always always always, listen to your gut feeling.  When you get honest behavior thank your benefactor profusely, and when you are getting cheated, call the perpetrator out, look them in the eye and tell them I know you are cheating me. I do this politely but firmly.

There was still that little problem of getting a train ticket to Varanasi and again I sought the help of the local Tibetan monk who “knew a guy”.  Now from what I can tell, knowing a guy, is pretty much how everything gets done in India. Like Pulk Fiction, you simply need a “Cleaner” to get stuff taken care of.  So the “guy” who gives me a ride back to Gorakhapur, also helps me navigate how to secure a train ticket. Once I was confident I was in the right line, with the correct paper work I gladly paid him for his assistance.  Ah, but how do you keep you place in an Indian line at the train station?  Being polite simply does not work as people just keep cutting in front of you.  This went on for about 30 minutes until a big bloke from Australia showed up and we compared notes on not going anywhere in this line. “Ok, you block on the left and I will block on the right”.  Pretty soon, after politely demonstrating we were not about to let anyone else cut in line we were in the front of the queue. What we did not know however was that women are allowed to go to the front of the line. So when we double blocked a Muslim women in full veil we were duly and appropriately chastised and educated.  We let her go but jokingly got into a blocking posture to the great laughter of the hundred men behind us. Ok, this works, keep a good attitude, and when you make mistakes just laugh at yourself. Fortunately I booked my ticket for the correct train and while amazingly stressful actually found the correct platform; this is not easy when the message boards are written in Hindi, the announcements are impossible to understand, and no-one seems to speak English in the smaller outlying stations. I did however book into the wrong compartment.  I booked “sleeper” class.  It was marginally ok for me and I have pretty high tolerance.  Compared to general seating or standing it must look to many locals as elegant, but for a westerne,r, it was a bit rough. There was three small bunks on each wall and once my pack and I were on the top level I remembered my Marine Corps days, not fondly, experience aboard a U.S navel ship.   The car was filthy, and the bathroom made the car look clean, but as typical I slept pretty darn well.

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