Archive for the ‘India’ Category

Where Is Robert?

Indian women dancing at a Wedding

Based on the emails I have received, I understand the following:  Some of you are worried about me, some of you are curious about me and my non-traditional ways, and some of you simply want something to read while at work. To all, I apologize for not keeping up with the posting as I had hoped; there is a simple reason however:  I am spending most of my time creating new stories verses writing about the past ones.  That is not to say that the past is not important, and I will be getting all the good stuff posted…but not today or even likely in the coming days.  Why?  Well, I am in Udiapur, India for another 5 days and I am supper busy during those days.  My day starts with a walk to Yoga, (I buy a liter of water from the same little girl each morning).  I spend 90 minutes at Yoga and then walk to my favorite cafe where I inevitably meet interesting people (this morning it was an accomplished Yogi and fascinating man from Delhi).  Breakfast is rarely over before 11.  Then back to my $6 room.  Mid day I have a bit of time, but as is typical, today we found ourselves in an Indian home looking at miniature paintings, enjoying great company, and figuring out if we have enough time to get our hands or feet painted with Henna (not enough time today…but later for sure).  In the afternoon I have another 90 minutes of Yoga.  For the last several days, Yoga has been followed by Indian Weddings that go late into the night.  Starting tonight, Yoga will be followed by 2.5 hours of Reiki classes. Tomorrow we have to try and squeeze in a Shiva festival after Reiki class….NO I am not complaining – I am living.

Women at another Wedding

But there is good stuff coming in my writing.  Or At least I think it is good.  The experiences certainly were, the writing simply is what it is.   Topics include:

  • I personally met the Dalai Lama and it was beyond transforming – he is the most amazing human I have ever had the privilege of holding hands with.
  • I delivered 100kg of rice to Muslim families from the back of a bicycle rickshaw – this was one of the most rewarding things I have ever done.
  • I saw poverty in Kolcata that will break your heart; and yet I now greet beggars and those less fortunate with a smile and Namaste rather than looking away
  • I saw the erotic art of Khajuraho and realized why yoga is important – but more importantly realized that the erotic sculptures were only a small percentage of the temples that reflect the entire human experience.
  • I saw the greatest temple of love, the Taj Mahal, with a most wonderful friend and person.
  • I have gone to more weddings in India then I have been to in 20 years in the U.S.

And so much more, that may or may not ever be writen; it certainly will not be forgot.

I greatly appreciate the support for me to keep writing:   It is not something I ever thought I would do or ever enjoy.  And it is most certainly nothing I thought others may enjoy.  I am in your debt, I enjoy writing, and I enjoy that some of you enjoy it.

Boys at yet another Wedding (last night)


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I met a guy

After eying a beautiful Royal Enfield (CIRCA 1950) motorcycle,  I struck up a conversation with the current owner.  The bike is being restored and shipped to Europe in a few weeks to a lucky bastard who is going to be riding it around the EU; I am so jealous, but figured with the gear shift being on the right /wrong (opposite of  all modern motorcycles) side, I would surely kill myself even if I did have the good fortune of owning one.

Monks chanting at sunrise

The same guy had previously helped Sue and Dave book their Himalaya trek….the one that never happened due to Sue’s serious Indian weight loss program (eat, throw up, have diarrhea….repeat for days). So casually I explain that I am trying to get to Boda Gaya and it is proving difficult, beyond difficult actually, as the trains are all fully booked. As he shows me the original name plate that is going back on the bikes fuel tank he says “I know the guy who can get you a train ticket”.  The process sounds highly suspect (something about railroad employees buying tickets, reselling them, and changing the names on the ticket) but I was currently out of options and have come to realize that sometimes, particularly in India , you just have to have trust and let the “guy” help you.

Without such and attitude, you will most certainly be going home earlier than planned. I  have met a lot of travelers who have said: “Nothing works here, we hate India, we are going home”.  Me on the other hand, well I am trying, with limited success, to develop an approach that gives up some of my perceived control.  I am thus starting to figure out that the “Nothing works” is simply according to our expectations, but at the end of the day, things do get done…..or at least somewhat done.  That afternoon Dave and I run into the “cake lady”, who as a westerner, is making Dargeeling her home while selling cakes that taste like cakes.  We mention the odd plan to her and she simply says: “Oh the guy with the cool bike is a good guy, if he said he can get you a ticket he can, no need to understand how”.

The next morning we check out of hotel, walk until we find a ride in a jeep going down the hill from Dargeeling before the latest in a series of protest strike (hotel manager and husband are also in jeep trying to get out of town also as the strike may disrupt things in Dargeeling through the new years).  After some tough negotiating, and some help from our hotel manager we convince the jeep driver that the front and back seats do not need to be crammed full, and we pay for a little extra comfort. The back…well they put 7 or 8 people back there. We drive through Gorkhaland independent state demonstrations and somehow avoid the road blocks; aparently there is an agreement with the strikers and the jeep drivers regarding when they can pass, but it is completely foreign to us as to the process.  At one point we see a few rupees change hand as we continue out of the Himalaya foothills.


With no hotel booking we walk to a hotel that looks decent (pretty nice actually) in the non-tourist town of Silugiri,  After checking in, prepaying, showing all forms of ID, we are given rooms; Odd.  Dave and I set out to try and find the guy who can get me a train ticket; We continue to ask directions over the honking horns and bustle of and Indian city at night. Dave ultimately spots a hotel down a side street with a name similar (but not the same) as the name we were told to look for.  “Yes, we know the guy you are looking for but he is gone; I whine, they tell us to sit down and they call the guy.  In India, you are always told to sit down and you never really know what that means, but we simply trusted that something would happen and we wait. Soon we see a rather old, rather haggard looking guy come in and we are surprised the hotel lets him into the lobby. He sits down and starts talking loudly on a cell phone.  At this point Dave and I are about to call the whole process  a bust,  and then this guy hands me the phone and says: “For you”.  It is the Enfield motorcycle guy on the phone telling me that the other guy is my guy and he was simply verifying who I was.  Out pops a train ticket with my name on it. Dave and I look at it and again opt to trust that it is indeed a ticket to Patna (near Gaya, and where I need to get to). As requested,  I give the guy $4 for his effort and walk away repeating Sue’s favorite saying regarding how to explain things in India: “But of course it is”.

The place of Enlightenment

We walk back to hotel in the mayhem of the Indian city and have great dinner (even though it was nothing close to what we ordered as often is the case) and we laughed: “But of course it is”. In the morning I walk to tuk tuk (auto rickshaws) station but opt to avoid what looks like certain suicide and  instead hire a cab to train station.  At the station while I settle in a for a long wait,  I fortunately meet a guy that explains that the train is not late as described on the status board and points out that my train is actually leaving NOW; We run down the platform, find my car and jump the train as it begins to role.  Completely rattled, intimidated, and a bit ticked off,  I find my berth as I clutch my belongings to my chest. I am instantly befriended by Indian newlyweds who adopt me for this part of my journey and share their dinner with me and tell me how happy they are with their arranged marriage (they are totally sincere, obviously happy, and committed to spending the rest of their lives together; divorce is a very very rare thing in India).  And forget the tourist restaurants or even the great street food,  if you want fantastic India food, enjoy the food a happy family packs for long train voyages. Later in the evening I am convinced that the puffed rice, with mustard sauce and chopped onions that is being sold by a vendor at one stop is safe to eat, so I take my newspaper cone that holds the rice and marvel at the rich spicy taste.  As I go to pay, I realize my Indian friends have all ready done so and they refuse my money. Soon a rock in the mix breaks yet another tooth.  I do not have the heart to tell my friends, and discretely spit the rock and sliver of tooth out; I enjoy the rest of the rice and lively conversation with wonderful people.

Indian Buddhist Monk

I Arrive in Patna after an all night train and try to buy ticket to Gaya but the station is closed.  I meet another guy who understands “Gaya” as I try to explain that I need to get a ticket.  He shakes his head in that way I do not understand the meaning, points to a train that is just leaving and we again run down the platform and jump onto the train. This is a local train – I sit on a bench with 3 other guys, while some very fascinating  and very very poor people (I am now in the poorest part of the country) sit around us.  At each stop the train gets more and more full until the is car packed with humans.  No one speaks English and I am clearly quite an anomaly for this train. I try and figure out if I am going the right directions and break out my little guide book map and use compass on watch; yes, I hink I am ok- lets see looks like maybe a hundred or a hundred and fifty kilometers that should be about 2- 3 hours, relax. Three hours later the guys indicates I should get off the train which I never did get a ticket for. We shake hands and I walk into a sea of tuk tuks and negotiate a price like a weathered veteran. I make it to Boda Gaya.  Travel – check.

I immediately set out to seek lodging amongst a sea of gold and maroon (thousands of monks and pilgrims are all ready here and estimates indicate that 50,000 people we be here in the coming days).  I go to a half dozen places with no luck and begin to think I may have finally done it – I am truly homeless.  Then I meet a guy who tells me to take a seat as he knows a guy; I meet another guy who comes at the request of the first guy and he takes me away to meet another guy who takes me to a hotel that I had all ready checked with – there are apparently no rooms in town, but remarkably, miraculously, or because I said I would pay a premium someone just cancelled and they offer me a nice room for way to much money.  I negotiate a still inflated but fair price given the crowds that I am seeing develop outside, and secure a room for the 10 days that correspond to His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet being here and doing a teaching.  Lodging – check.

I have no idea how to secure a ticket for the teaching but opt to relax in knowing I am in the right town on the right day.  I go to find a cup of much deserved coffee; not great, but black and taste something like coffee in a continent of tea drinkers. “Good morning” says an older Lama who asks if he may join me”. “Certainly” I say.  We have a nice visit and I ask if he may know how I acquire a ticket for the teaching.  “Wait here, enjoy another coffee, I will be back later”.  After a tine he returns and we depart together. Every few minutes we have to stop, however, as people keep approaching my new friend; the process is always the same, they clasp their hands, bow, say a greeting I do not understand and then shake both hands warmly.  At one such stop, the Lama simply says “Excuse me for a moment, this is His Holiness’s personal secretary on Tibet and I need to speak with him for a moment”. We make it to the registration area and I am helped throughout the process by this kind Lama. Over lunch I ask: “So, who are you“, I get a humble response that includes a name, and like the Dalai Lama an assertion that “ I am just a monk“.  I knew otherwise and Google confirmed;  I have just spent the day with the 5th incarnation of Chusang Rimpoche who oversees the Monastery that bears his name in Kathmandu, Nepal, studied directly under His Holiness, and is a senior monastic in the Tibetan community.  At one point Lama Rimpoche says “So you are not a Buddhist” to which I reply, “No but I am interested, have been doing some practice, and very much relate to Buddhism, particularly Tibetan Buddhism with its focus on the mind and analytical thinking”.  “I know” says the Lama, “I think you may have traveled this path before”.  His words are said in a manor that penetrate deeply and for once in my life I am left speechless. “It is best you are not a Buddhist, labels not important, practice important”.  Ticket – check….who know what else.

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By comparison to my limited Indian experience, Dargeeling is quite  peaceful.  The demographics here are more similar to Nepal and the populous is comprised of many Nepali and Tibetans, along with the fairer skin toned Indians. Thus in Dargeeling you see much more of what we would consider an Asian influence on peoples faces; or as Choezom’s sister said when I said I was going to Dargeeling:  “You see more chinky eye their”.  This was not a racial slur,  it was simply a way to describe how people in different regions look differently.  There is an enormous amount of prejudice in India but that is based more on the Caste system.

India will make you marvel about our vanity regarding skin color.  We more fair skinned people dream of having higher melanin and thus darker skin.  We use to work on our tans until we realized it was killing us, some drink carotene to the point of looking like carrots, and some paint their bodies to make their natural color look darker.  Not in India -ust the opposite and every other commercial on television is for a skin lightening product – “Up to three shades lighter” is the typical claim.  I think Michael Jackson must have used the super strength stuff. In India this apparent obsession regarding how we look goes far beyond just physical appearance and as skin tone can demonstrate your place in the society. the upper Caste are typically more fair while the lower Caste are often very dark.  This is partly due to the different labor categories that each cast holds; laborers are low Caste and work outside in the sun, while high Caste hold merchant and other more leisurely post.  This system, while not as all inclusive as in decades past, is still the dominant social structure throughout the sub-continent, and is going to continue to be so for at least a few more generations.

Tiger Hill ans tar

Dave and Sue had not gotten a good view of the Himalaya so we hired a car to take us to the base of Tiger Hill, and although foggy we decided to make the walk up to the top regardless.  Upon summiting we were granted a tad bit of a view, but given my Nepal trekking experience it was indeed marginal.  And to add insult to the fog, at the top of the hill, the road crew was boiling tar and we were forced to cover our noises and mouths as the wind swirled the black smoke around the lookout point. But the kids who were walking up the hill had a great time because this road crew actually had a compactor and rides were being given to everyone; I talked to both the OSHA representative and the Union Steward both and they said this was fine 🙂 It was Christmas Eve after all.

Monkey enjoying the offerings at Hindu shrine

The three of us enjoyed a nice dinner together and called it an early evening.  While working hard not to, be I was indeed in a bit of a melancholy mood as I retired to nice but freezing cold room…. alone. At sunset the temperature drop precipitously and given the rooms are poorly insulated with single pane windows the room was an ice box without the ice.  Rather the windows were dripping with condensation and the blankets themselves felt heavy with moisture.  The blankets are hard to describe….like some kind of heavy cotton fill sewn inside a sheet.  They weighed a short ton, were about 4 inches thick – and lumpy.  I had three of them on top of me – any more and I would have been crushed to death, and they still lacked any real semblance of insulation The fantastic hotel manager secured a mini electric heater to put by our beds.  At one point, I had on all my clothes including my down jacket – and Himalaya hat,  was smothered in blankets, and held the electric heater to my nose and ear to thaw them out. I wonder what it is like here in the real winter which is still a few months away?  And, why the hell did I send my down sleeping bag home from Nepal?  India is warm!  That is like saying California is warm…..say that from the top of Mt Whitney in the winter. I watched bad action hero movies (first TV in three months) and shivered for hours.  It is Christmas 2009.

Observation hill: Hindu, Buddhist again sharing space

Sue got very sick on Christmas day so after the first day of sightseeing together  Dave and I were on our own as Sue opted to throw-up for 4 days.  We did very little actually as I was becoming less interested in seeing things and more interested in interacting with people and simply hanging out.  The days went quickly, we enjoyed some good meals together while each day Dave and Sue evaluated if Sue was up  for a couple of day trek into the Himalayas. Each day Sue answered after breakfast by throwing up everything she ate. When it became obviously that a trek was out the question we all began to make independent plans for leaving Dargeeling.  But before we did we were all able to go for a small outing to the Happy Valley tea plantation where we tasted and explored the fascinating world of the worlds most famous teas. I am a coffee guy, but this is damn good tea; like Folgers to Petes coffee…..comparing Happy Valley to Lipton is well no comparison.

Clock tower

Throughout the Dargeeling area you see signs supporting an independent Gorkhaland. The inhabitants of these foothills and surrounding mountains want, very much, to be an independent state of India. The argument is similar to elsewhere in the world – we are represented by Bengali’s from Kolcata……we are Gorkha, we demand to represent ourselves. These lands have changed political boundaries so many times that I got lost just trying to follow the chronology. The British were the latest architected and crafted some elaborate compromises that seemed to have largely served no-one but themselves. So, I can say this – it is obvious that the vast majority of the people want to represent themselves as a separate state, they are organized and getting more so. And they control a cash crop that is worth a fortune to the state of Bengal…this is going to be a conflict not easily resolved.

Kids getting a ride on compactor

Studded tires and chains are apparently unknown in Dargeeling.  Their alternative snow traction strategy is ingenious however. The roads or Dargeeling are small, narrow, and very steep, so as they put down a heavy layer of tar they imbed golf ball sized sharp angular rocks into the surface.  A bit hard to walk on, but it must work. Like squat toilets, we do not have a monopoly on truth or doing things the ‘right” way. But we typically think we do.

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Gorkhaland, India

The British were here: Christian Church of Dargeeling

Like tribal people everywhere, westerners are drawn together at Indian train stations like  Hindus to the Ganges. Thus, while Dargeeling is not a popular destination (cold) this time of the year, I met five others travelers trying to figure out what platform the train may be leaving from. We quickly formed a partnership, spit up and checked each platform and agreed we would share a private jeep to Dargeeling from the train station. Well all but one person agreed.  A new to India solo women said she preferred to travel alone as she was on a personal pilgrimage and would make her own arraignments. I informed the group that I was assured we could also catch an express train once we got to the NJP station.  “Never heard of that was the collective response”. When I was told this by the hotel manager in Varanasi I had my doubts as to the validity; could not confirm in the guide book or on line. But he insisted it was easy.  What he meant was it was an easy lie for him to tell me so I would not worry about how to get from the train station to Dargeeling, this is unfortunately a rather common occurrence: Tell em something even if you do not know or if it is incorrect; there is no such train. There is the historic steam train, that only leaves in the morning (we arrived in the evening) and it is far from express given it takes 8 hours to climb to the hill station. I was disappointed in Christopher for taking this approach as I had very much liked his little affordable hotel, found his other information to be valid, and like the guy. But I have told lots of travelers that the hotel is a bargain but unfortunately you can not trust he manager; wonder what that has cost him?  Not being vindictive here, it is simply a matter that I choose to do business with honest people; particularly important for travelers in a challenging travel environment. And by doing so, the good ones will also make more money and other will not – seems appropriate and helpful to me.

Municipal building; notices the Swastika -symbol of good luck in Hinduism and prevalent throughout Asia with similar meaning.  Mirror image stolen and inappropriately used by Hitler

Someone in our group, Sue I think, finally found and English speaker and got us to the correct platform; which was again not the platform listed on the board.   I had fortunately booked the right compartment this time as well and was in relative  luxury in a 3ac sleeper (complete with a sheet for my bunk and a blanket…wow).  Three bunks on each side, but separated in a cubicle sort of way.  Much cleaner, and the car had it own bathroom that was a far more manageable dirty….but not filthy. And I had some travel mates so was less concerned about my gear (it was still locked) as I slept.  In the morning I was due for a panic and so one materialized as I realized that either the lock on my gear had failed or more likely I had inadvertently (rather easy to do) changed the combo the night before. “Shit, we were arriving at our station in about two hour and my bag is locked securely in a Pack Safe stainless steel mesh bag“. Fortunately, because I had been with others I opted (something I never do) to not fully synched down the metal mesh bag and so after 20 minutes I was able to free my pack with only one small tear  “.Ok, relax, you have your pack”. Now the lock, cable, and mesh cover were securely attached to the bulkhead of my bunk.  I sat and looked at it for a long time, tried dozen of combinations and finally said “oh well”. Then Dave, and Electrical engineer from Alaska who had obviously been thinking about it for awhile looked at it for an equally long time. We ultimately determined that there was a “weak link” in the system  – actually an aluminum compression connector that made a loop in the cable.  If we could cut that we could get the bag and lock back even though it would still be locked.  Go McGiver. Dave had a silly small multi tool with an even sillier small file and off to work we went. “Hey, what else do we have to do”. After 20 minutes we had a small grove, and after 40 minutes we had a space big enough to get a knife blade into; after an hour and some bruised and bloodied fingers we were free. The guy at the coffee shop in Dargeeling cut the lock with nothing more than a hack saw blade (no saw) in about 5 minutes….so much for case hardened.

Economics is apparently not a widely taken subject mater by jeep drivers.  Outside the train station we started negotiating with an entire group of drivers who wanted to take us to Darjeeling (about 3 hours by jeep).  Each driver was asking 100rp (2 dollars) per person and they would take 15 people in their jeep.  Now I, along with others had experienced that nightmare before so we wanted to hire a jeep to take only the 5 of us.  “No problem, we take you 5 for 2000rp”.  Humm, 15 times 100 is 1500 but if we do not want to be packed like small fish in a can, we have to pay a 500rp premium, we have to wait for 9 others who want a ride, it will take more petrol….. this is odd.  We each tried to rationalize with the drivers and offered to pay a small but not 500rp premium but had no luck.  Ultimately we regrouped, the solo female traveling came running up saying she REALLY wanted to go with us now as she realized she was about to be stuck at the train station for the night, and we decided to pay the 2000rp and base on decision on our perception on the best driver, with the best jeep.  We choose wisely, and after a steady climb beyond the valley and into the steep tea country of Dargeeling and Gorkhaland we arrived safely. Humm, maybe they did take econ….we paid the premium and I am certain they new we would.

Three in our group had previous reservations and three of us did not.  So we followed the couple with reservations and figured we might all stay at the same hotel. Then as is often the case, our friends discovered that their reservations were good until someone else showed up and took there room.  While the hostilities began to rise, Sue, Dave, and I said our good byes and sent out into the cold night to find lodging.  In the process we met the solo women again who said her hotel appeared to be permanently closed even though she also had a pre booking. We did not have to go far as the hotel next door was happy to give us a room for a reasonable rate. When we told them we may stay for upwards or a week, the rate got even better.  The manager was fantastic in providing lots of blankets, and helpful honest service. Sue went directly to bed, and I happily bought Dave dinner and a tall Kingfisher (national beer of India) as a celebratory meal after a tough day of travel and a successful pack recovery.

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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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