Archive for January 29th, 2010

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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