Saturday, May 18, 2013

January 22, 2013

Suncourt Hotel, Delhi
Intrepid Travel to the Golden Triangle, Jaipur, Agra, Karauli & back to Delhi

Nice enough group, but again, I don’t travel well in groups as they don’t allow well for my moods and caprices.  Here there are 4 men and 4 women.  2 couples (one married, on their honeymoon); 1 Canadian and 1 Australian man on their first travel adventures; one married Englishman taking a holiday from his family; 1 Australian woman also on her first traveling foray; 1 middle aged Chilean woman who seems independent; and me, 66, on a mission to see the Taj Majal and other ex-glories of Rajasthan.  So here we are together with a young male guide (a ‘Delhi boy’ as I will find out) about to spend 9 days together hurtling through Earth’s space and land in India.

I woke this morning after a poor night’s sleep, to a cold water shower at the Suncourt Hotel in Delhi.  Still suffering with the cold I caught two weeks ago, and desperately needing some quiet time alone, I opted out of 1st group excursion to Old Delhi.  Slept two more hours, and woke better and able to stretch.  Lazy morning organizing a little and reading email.

Sitting in the hotel cafĂ© waiting for an egg sandwich at noon.  Masala tea cooling (it’s a little salty actually not very good) and waiting for the group to return.  I feel a bit like a prima donna, but am delighted to be alone.  I decide to head out to Humayun’s Tomb on my own, so hire a car through the hotel, and off I go.

The car is a dusty, beat up number and I wonder at the driver.  He speaks little English, is a young thin fellow of indeterminate background who immediately wants to take me to a shopping ("not bazaar") place.  I firmly insist “no shopping, only sightseeing" and he finally (after many, many repetitions of the same) drives and deposits me at the car park of what looks comfortingly like a tourist attraction. 

Sure enough, there are loads of school boys in uniform lining up.  As a foreigner I’m allowed to go in a separate line (albeit for a slightly higher ticket price) and I walk through a nicely kept garden to a magnificent structure housing the remains of one of India’s Moghul rulers.  Structurally it’s as impressive and anything I’ve seen, the Muslim influence of the graceful arches and inner doorways.  Once inside, these buildings are like beautiful puzzles… which way does one turn … which door leads outside.

The driver is waiting for me when I emerge from the park and I insist that he take me to see an Arab saint's tomb which is nearby  He is hesitant, saying that the Arab areas are dangerous, but I insist and he finally drives to a walled neighborhood, parks the car, gets out and bids me follow him.  We walk through a narrow street lined with shops and curious people.  It becomes narrower, and a roof suddenly appears as we are in a bazaar, full of all kinds of goods. He's walking so fast that I don't have time to look.  The alleyways wind, and narrow, and wind and even go uphill.  finally he stops, as a man behind us whistles and beckons.  "You must leave your shoes here.  I will watch.  You go on."  I remove my shoes, and walk on, finally realizing that I should cover my head (I'd brought a shawl) and buy some flowers.  A plate of wilted roses in hand I move on, press my hands together in  prayer as well as I can.  This seems to please people and finally I see some smiles and nods as I move long, not knowing where I am going.  I reach an open courtyard where men are sitting, talking, praying.  There are no women with them, there is a small temple-like structure and I walk cautiously around, not having any idea what I should be doing or where I should be going.  I realize I should not look at or talk to the men, and so I concentrate on where the women are sitting.  I put down my flowers, walk around the shrine, salaam, bow and get outta there.  Back to the shoes and back to my loyal driver who looks relived when I appear.

Now we go shopping.  I, feeling a bit like he'd gone out on a limb for me, allow him to take me to Arts India, a hard-sell tourist arcade where, $300 later, I emerge with some goodies from India.

January 24

Still sick and in Jaipur.  This cold (from the conference, Bodhgaya Jan 16) is 8 days old and getting me down.  Two days not bonding with the travel group as I'm one big hacking cough (I heard it throughout the conference and know how off-putting it was).  Illness on the road is amplified as is everything else, and being with others makes illness that much worse for them.

Amber (Amir) Fort was outstanding.  I’m glad I got at least to see that wonder, though listening to the tour guide was a bit of a bore.  The climb from the street to the top wasn’t bad, but I stayed in bed all the next day while the group went out to explore the pink city of Jaipur.

Major impression of Jaipur … driving is a process of reading and feeling the movements of other vehicles, moving in a stream of separate bodies (tuk-tuks, cars, trucks, wagons, pedestrians) sometimes within 2 inches of each other, somehow all maneuvering through the melee to their destination.  I think Indian drivers must be the best in the world … few violent accidents (though plenty of dented fenders).  Each vehicle a fish in a school … when one changes direction slightly all others accommodate.

I’m having trouble understanding British and Australian accents among my travel companions.  Is it my hearing, my elder brain, the cold,  or them? 

Yesterday when feeling so bad, Mr. Shayam at our hotel took good care of me.  I came into the dining room to get lemon tea with a little ginger, and he brought me lovely hot drink with honey.  Very gentlemanly, caring.   When I thanked him later for his kindness he said,  “Of course … it’s the moral thing to do.”  Have met with nothing but kindness and humor in this country.

January 27

End  of Intrepid tour.  Sukhot Singh Gill, our guide, lost my camera case and connector cable, so I’ve decided not to give him a tip.  Have felt he’s somewhat careless since about 4 days into the trip.  One woman wanted to see a doctor and, while he kept telling us that she was going to see a doctor, none was arranged.  He could have taken me to a pharmacy to get cold medicine, he is mostly interested in flirting and drinking.

I feel even farther from the group now as the cold gets worse.  I can’t understand their language or much of their humor, nor am I interested in the subjects they talk about.  They are decidedly not friendly towards me either--am feeling a bit like I have body odor, but maybe it’s just the cold.

Traveling in a group of people with nothing in common but that they’ve paid a guide for seeing and being in India is fairly boring, I’ve concluded.  I probably won’t take a tour like this again.

The Taj Mahal yesterday was stupendous and definitely the highlight of the tour…. Worth the trip to be there. Never mind that it was Indian Independence Day (Jan 26) and packed to the rafters (metaphorically speaking).  This was another gaff by our guide, who didn’t know that the Taj was going to be closed at sunrise because of an economic conference.  Things are falling apart.

Still, stay with the positive.  The building is glorious, seeming to float behind the long pool built in front.  In spite of the thousands of people cavorting on the lawn, it maintains dignity, grace and a sense of peace … pearly white and perfect.  Begonia (the Chilean woman) wanted to go inside the mausoleum, and  since we had the expensive entrance tickets we got in fairly quickly.  Once inside, however, the crowds milling around the lovely sarcophagus (thankfully shielded by a carved veil) were frightening.  Signs which said no photos were allowed were totally ignored and the mass moved clockwise around the crypt to exit where we’d entered, spit out like the irritant we were.  The well loved queen died in childbirth of her 14th child, and I can’t imagine what she would make of the chaos her countrymen are creating around the peaceful gift her husband built for her.

Rajasthan attracts visitors to its former splendor.  Five hundred year old Mogul palaces are crumbling, forts of bricks will never again repel invaders  or protect inhabitants, photographs of white hunters surrounded by their now extinct kills adorn walls of heritage homes which are supported by tourist dollars.  The maharajas made deals with the British conquerors during the colonial period, allowing them to keep their mansions and live their expensive lifestyles a bit longer.  Now, I was told, the former nobles of Rajasthan are politicians, still wielding power and maintaining a semblance of their former lifestyle, supporting the villages to some degree.  I hope these past nobles are in debt, but I suppose they are just in hiding.

January 29
Delhi airport, heading to Goa

India is the most horrible and wonderful country I’ve ever visited.  It seems at once on the brink of collapse into chaos, disease, poverty and despair and full of energy, devotion, pride, talent, kindness and motion.  The middle class is proudly aware of possibilities, but is it also aware of the need for mass education, social justice and income distribution.  I’ve seen many children out of school; I’m told that polio vaccine is not available to poor children; the central government controls access of electricity to rural areas; garbage is burned, releasing toxins into the air; fires of cow dung are used for heat, creating massive air pollution.

I visited shrines and monuments to India’s past wealth, power and glory and to her ability to give birth to a new religion.  Buddhism rose here because of and out of the corruption of the Brahmins to become inclusive and peaceful. It was a state religion for only a short time and, while it did not solve the problem of the caste system, it gives hope and responsibility for change to its followers.

January 31

It’s Goa and it’s the tropics and it’s hard not to love the tropics.  There is a fair amount of pollution here in Panjim; however, I’m rested, mostly free of the cold that’s plagued me for 2 weeks, and happy to be in one place for 5 nights, getting my thoughts collected, my pictures sorted, and my body in gear for the return home.

Pilgrimage & Delhi

I haven’t read much about pilgrimages other than the Canterbury Tales and a bit about Santiago de Campostela.  For a while there was a flurry of information and romance about Santiago when Shirley McLaine wrote a book and Emilio Estevez made a movie about their travels.  The characters on the road, their travails, their back stories, and the ecstasies of completing the pilgrimage are different from those of general travel.  There’s an under riding notion that pilgrimage is different from a tour.  I isn't undertaken to collect memories, souvenirs or snapshots, but there’s a spiritual quest involved  But that quest is unrealized (or perhaps not admitted, even to oneself) until well into in the trip. By then, there have been events to remember, souvenirs and photos taken … and then where’s the quest?  It’s elusive … you realize that life changes every day, every hour, as the route becomes the  and the process is the route.  There have been troubles, joys, impressions, maybe even psychological changes to deal with.   You've met people along the way, experienced travails, as well as beauty, and they become part of the journey.  The food one eats, the beds one sleeps in, the water, the dreams, the views of the earth, the air, the aches and pains; the music and the conversations one overhears, the speeches.  And also the loss of the familiar, being unconnected (difficult in these wifi times) from news of home, business, friends, sights and smells we know.  All of what we get and what we miss are in high relief on the road we travel.  At the end, the reason for the pilgrimage is still ephemeral.

I don’t travel well in groups.  I find myself feeling hindered by chatter and drama; I get caught in what people think, want and need from me.  My judgments of others are the judgments of myself.  I want to commune with and experience what’s around me, that which I’m a stranger to, rather than hearing about the lives or even the opinions of others.  And that’s part of my pilgrimage … to come to terms with human need.  On this tour, where structure is pre-fixed, my responsibility for choosing experiences is forgotten and I relax into the present, whatever it is, however mundane, or frivolous.  At first I didn’t experience what was around me as intensely as I would have by myself.  But once we’d all shared the necessities of society with each other, I was free to walk the pilgrimage with like minded souls who might have an inkling of where I was, since they had been there too and were with me even now.

January 20

My Facebook friend, Indu, came to the Ashok, picked me up in her car, and took me shopping.  She lives only 15 minutes away from the hotel and had graciously asked me to come to her house to stay for the night.  Little did she realize that I would still be sick with a cold; I hope I didn’t come across as too sick to appreciate her wonderful hospitality.  We went to  Delhi Haat (a bazaar) to eat lunch and shop a bit and I picked up a very ‘Indian’ bag that caused smiles from hotel keepers and luggage handlers throughout the rest of my trip.  It’s completely ‘60s … mirrored and fringed … and I’m surely pegged as a tourist. 

Indu lives in a spacious and artistically decorated house … cold (Indians don’t heat their mansions, no matter how cold or how high the ceilings, it seems) in a suburb called Gurgaon.  Besides the pottery which she makes, lovely paintings, and various art of Asia, her walls are full of photos of her two beautiful, grown children.  Her son lives in Irvine, California, where he studied physics and now has an American girlfriend and, sadly for Indu, a life in America.  Her lovely daughter, also in her 20s, lives in Mumbai and is trying to make a mark in the film industry.  So the Indian middle class gives the next generation its start in arts and science.  How the society develops?  Social consciousness may have to wait until the wealth becomes older.

I spent two lovely days with Indu.  Met her friend who was as kind and openly friendly, and saw the wonderful art center where she spends time.  A lunch at her friend's home reminds me how we are all in this life together, no matter that we live on opposite sides of the world.


Bodhgaya 2 January 16 & 17

Bodhgaya, where Buddha achieved enlightenment.  528 BCE he arrived in a village where there was a Bodhi tree and he sat down in this peaceful place.  He spent 7 weeks there after enlightenment was attained, and then set out for Sarnath to share what he’d learned and begin his ministry/teaching. He returned to the village to teach 3 disciples.

Mahabodhi Temple, Bohdgaya.  Lights, movement, chanting by many  groups at one time.  Mostly monks (though I can’t tell monks from nuns); prostration platforms among forests of stupas, the great complex shrine next to the descendant of the tree of Buddha’s enlightenment.  The first graft off of the original tree was taken to Sri Lanka by Ashoka’s son and daughter.  There it was planted and grafts were taken from it to other places.  Thus, the original Bodhi tree was never destroyed.

Is this really where it happened?  The fact that a major world religion began here seems almost insignificant compared to the intense flurry of human activity going on here today.  Outside of the temple complex is a carnival … flowers, foods, beads, kitchen magnets, plates, all manner of trinkets are being sold.  Pilgrims coming in hopes of releasing their suffering, monastics coming to express their devotion, tourists to see something unusual.  The chanting is serious, dedicated, grateful.  The lights, beauty and intricacies of the structure and setting attest to the complexity of human search for faith and understanding.  Beautiful and meriting study, appreciation and wonder.

Like gothic cathedrals, the spires of the great stupa rise--aspirational?  Would a woman build a stupa or worship a well?  From woman comes wisdom of the earth; from man comes wisdom of the erection.  Will women waken the earth wisdom of man?  Will the stupa prevail?

There are three levels of walkways around the temple.  One at ground level, one in the middle and one above, with lawns.  The middle level circumambulates clockwise, mostly bhikkus and bhikkunis in red robes.  I could describe it as a parade, except that people are praying, quietly chanting the suttas, or simply living within themselves as they move.  It is almost silent.  But it moves as a river, insistent, non-stopping, around the stupa.  I enter as a fish would join a school; I exit the same way, leaving without stopping any of the momentum of the circular force.  Humanity continues around; and I can pick it up again at any place in theflow, smoothly and without stress.

Below is the Bodhi tree, or at least a descendant of it.  There are people meditating. 

Three dogs--I'll call them Pepper, Snap and Fish-- hang with me for a time as I sit quietly on the steps leading out of the temple.  Owning the temple is their job.  They patrol, alert, with casual direction and plenty of flea scratching; attached to nothing and no one, but aware of us and of each other.  No tail wagging while there’s this much activity.  No human touch where there’s fleas.

“Where’s your lama?”
“Doing prostrations.”

I forgot about the prostrations.  What are they about?  Submitting, giving, admitting lower position to the stupa.  I wonder if the Buddha would approve.  He was most adamant about not being considered a god.  He was most adamant about each person finding her own way through the dharma.  If it doesn’t work, don’t do it.  Nothing divine about Buddhism.  Nothing god-like about Buddha.  Simply he found a truth that worked for him and was willing to share it  So the bowing?  Respect.  Symbolic prostration to one’s own ego, or to the inevitability of the 4 Noble Truths:  There is suffering; clinging causes suffering; there is a way to end suffering; there is the 8 fold path.

January 16 & 17

The group goes to Tergar Monastery in Bodhgaya for an audience with the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje.  While I respect him, and am glad for his well spoken words of encouragement to Buddhist women; while I'm happy to be in his presence with my sisters from the conference; while the surroundings are awe- as well as compassion- inspiring as he's under house arrest, I’m unable to take or give a blessing to this man. 

This trip to India makes me realize I’m not a Buddhist in the devotional sense.  My  devotion and gratitude is to the earth; the physical presence of the earth is my temple.  It’s processes and its state of being are my dharma.  I don't invest enough in this man to receive blessing, as I don't know what a blessing is and why it would be more important from him than from any other human of earth. No teacher, no idol, no single human, no building, no creed, no gospel, no dogma, no costumes, no prostrations, no status has devotional meaning.  The Brahmaputra (earth touching) mudra gives comfort.

We leave the very energetic and exciting Bodhgaya and travel by bus to Sarnath and Varanasi.  40 + luggage; 5 buses to coordinate.  No real toilet stops on the road.  Instead we use the fields and bushes along the way and sometimes draw a crowd of locals.  One toilet break on an 8 hour trip.

January 16

After a long bus ride (seems like ½ of it was spent driving within Varnasi city limit with its immobile traffic) we arrived at Hotel India.  A lot of stress after that taxing ride, and we discover that our double rooms, have only one bed.  Another mattress brought in, in an attempt to appease us, but they were either put on a small cot, or on the floor.  Dealing with the yes/no wiggle headshake of management only seemed to make things worse as many did not believe that there were no more rooms and no alternative to our slightly rustic accommodations.

This tour costs under US$100/day, an outrageously cheap price for airfare, food and lodging, even in India, and yet expectations are what they are.  I suppose we will each balk at whichever inconvenience bothers us most.  This one doesn't bother me too much, probably because I'm so tired, and I know it will work out in the end.  "If it isn't ok, it is not the end."

Varanasi--ugly, dirty, and so full of vehicles that I wonder where people are living.  I look up out of the bus and see dozens of kites flying, but from where?  Finally, I see children on the roofs of buildings.  Our bus stops, stuck, and I watch one little boy in a red sweater, putting his kite up in what seems like no wind--tugging, jerking, moving until the little red square finally takes the wind.  It continues to move higher and farther away until it’s a tiny red speck ready to do battle with the other kites in its vicinity.  That kite might look down on such squalor that it would never want to land.

Early the next morning, before dawn, our group followed the tour guide through dark streets, to the ghats (steps leading down the river bank) and took a boat out on the Ganges.  In the Hindu faith, bathing in the Ganges at least once in life, ensures rebirth in a higher form, or enlightenment.  The ghats are steps leading maybe 50 feet down to the peaceful river, allowing people to come, visit, bathe, pray, wash clothes, and even have their cremated ashes placed in the Ganges.  I looked at the oil slick on the surface and decided not to dip my hand into the water.

Small dishes of orange marigolds & candles are lit and set into the water as the sun rises.  Large palaces were once home to kings who let their people come to stay and bathe.  These, and what look like apartment blocks, line the river now … but who lives there?  Most look abandoned. No lights shone before dawn or as we walked down or back up the steps of the ghat at 7:30 feeling peaceful for having been on, if not in, the water.

The beggers … a man pushed the stump of his arm near my face … I thought I saw shame when our eyes briefly met … not desperation.  Women held suspiciously quiet infants in their arms, and we walked up the steps, deliberately not looking or feeling … I tried to maintain the peace that came from the river … and succeeded.  It is a powerful place.

Varanasi to Kushinagar 8 hours

Kushinagar is the place where Buddha died (passed on) after eating a meal prepared by a local craftsman.  He’d stated to his followers that he was tired, ready to leave this world at age 80, after 40 years of teaching all around India.  What I love about Buddha is that I don’t believe he preached in the sense of the Christian gospel.  Rather,  he gave what he knew, he taught without expectation or need for anyone to believe. That serene countenance we see pictured couldn’t have been evangelical, trying to convert non-believers  He had experienced something that he wanted to share, simple as that.  Even today, no one pushes the dharma  Far from it. Buddhists (at least in the West) are mostly introspective people, not looking to convert, not wanting to convince.  They accept other religions and practices, and will bring them into their temple grounds, as long as they are peaceful and kind.

And so I wonder:  why is India so chaotic if Buddhism came long 2500 years ago to bring peace and release from suffering?  Is there something inherently deficient about Buddhism that caused India to fall into such dreadful disrepair, or is it because Buddhism died out that moguls, Moslems, destroyed structures, and the Hindu caste system came back as the national identity developed, eventually giving way to British rule.

Now, 60 years independent, the vast inefficiency of the infrastructure is something to marvel at.  Transportation is ridiculously slow by road and limited even by air.  From what I gather, taxes are collected, but spending not well monitored.  There are more children on the streets than seem to be in schools, and education is free only until grade 5.

January 17

We spend a short time on the bus driving to Lumbini, Nepal.  Buddha’s birthplace is now a set of temples, a huge excavation, and a massive shrine surrounded by Tibetan prayer flags.  We are staying at a wonderful hotel (MayaBuddah Garden) where I’d like to rest for several days.  I’ve caught the cold that’s been going around the conference for weeks now, and it’s definitely dulled my spirits and lowered my energy level.  The Mayadeva temple is in a lovely setting, however, and I walk around happily, by myself mostly.

A group of Korean pilgrims sit across the lake from the Mayadeva temple, their beautiful chanting expressing joy and elation.  The archaeologists both inside and outside of the temple are looking for the exact spot, I guess, where Buddha was dropped from his mother’s womb and where he is supposed to have immediately walked 7 paces in each direction.  One of the miracles ascribed to Siddhartha which contributes to his god-like stature.

The holy sepulcher, the dome of the rock, Mt. Sinai, Lumbini… these the sites of the world biggest religions. Now, if only we could keep these religious ideals in perspective and live according to their purest concepts.

L has become increasingly assertive and arguments between her and the local tour guide occur constantly.  She insists on finding a temple run by a Burmese nun she knows and drags everyone in the bus out in the darkness and rain to find it.  I wait on the bus until the traipsing is done.  I’m sorry that I didn’t take off on my own and get back to our lovely hotel for the evening.

Information about what we are doing from moment to moment is incomplete and capricious.

We leave reluctantly early in the morning

January 18
Bus to Svarasti

Yesterday, 3 days into a cold, I spent the day in bed.  I missed the last of our pilgrimage sites, where Buddha was to base for 25 years of his teaching career at a garden, Jetavana, acquired for him by a disciple.  The ruins, according to my roommate, were much like the ruins of Nalanda, and not to worry that I missed seeing them.

Left Svarasti at 5 am next morning with the usual confusion, this time with the added stress of needing to get to Lucknow in time to catch a plane to Delhi.  We’ve had a male tour guide from India, “leading” a group of women mostly from western culture.  Comments, rumors, complaints among the group spread like crazy, as we are wanting clarity about information that is only given sparsely and incompletely.  The Taiwanese women of our group are just as uncomfortable with the leadership as are the western women.  We are like a herd of cats, and trying to get us to move in one direction is a chore.

Yet we do get to Lucknow in time for our flights, despite a broken wheel, misinformation about where to eat lunch, and an airport guard who tells us that the slips of paper we have been given are not tickets to get us into the airport, even to use the bathroom.  Security is very tight at all of the Indian airports I’ve been to, no one can even get into the lobby without a ticket of some sort for a flight that day.  And once in, it’s difficult to get out; once out, it’s difficult to get back in.  Luggage is scanned and tagged before one goes through security, then scanned again. Every body is scanned by someone of their own gender (no xray scans); purses are physically examined even after they’ve been scanned; and today a second physical look is taken before we board the plane.

We arrive back at the Ashok Country Resort.  I left the group when we landed in Delhi, choosing to take a taxi on my own rather than wait the 45 minutes it took the group to get organized, load their luggage and board the bus at the airport.  I told a Chinese woman my decision to leave the group and she looked at me so incredulously that I had to ask if she understood, even though I know she speaks English well. 

The benefits of traveling with the Sakyadhita group were immense.  Hotels and meals were scheduled and more than adequate; transportation was safe; company was good and I learned wonderful things from Lekshe’s talks while on the bus, and from the camaraderie, the fascinating lives of the women with me.  Coming from countries all over the world,  all so independent and strong, and still able to follow consuming, sometimes inane instructions.

But at that tipping point… the end of the tour . .. I completely reverted back to my own ways … and took off on my own in order to get my body to bed in a calm place.  Back at the Ashok, where we’d begun, I took a shower, had a cup of tea, and sat in the lobby reading.  When the group returned, I was centered again.
January 12

Leaving Vishali.   Leaving the conference by bus to Rajgir.  Leaving this little village of 3 monasteries (Vietnamese, Sri Lankan and Cambodian).  Leaving the pigs, goats, dogs and kids roaming the street looking for a living.  The animals rooting in the piles of trash; the kids walking along with us women who are shuttling back and forth between residency and conference at the monastery.  The men on motor scooters who back and forth to the crossroads beyond the monastery; the old men who drive cattle wagons; the women who walk herding of pigs or goats.

It has been very cold.  Delhi was the coldest it’s been in 45 years during the time we spent here in the eastern part of India.  Patna was cold too.  Bracing cold. Sitting in a tent inside of an open monastery we huddled together in the mornings, I was wearing everything I brought with me … two layers of cotton, a thin layer of silk, and a light jacket.  Towards the end of the conference, men would come around graciously serving tiny cups of masala tea or hot water to warm us.  The tent was given a silken door flap to keep away the wind.  But there were many hours of sitting in an environment where one’s breath could be meditated upon as well as seen.

The electricity went off periodically but was magically restored within minutes.  The microphones were also capricious.  Women started getting sick and coughing was commonly heard.   Each mealtime was special because we got to move … either to the warm soup of the Vietnamese kitchen or to the spicy sauces of the Indian kitchen.  Other than the ubiquitous and obvious statement of  “It’s really cold, isn’t it?” no one complained.  Conference organizers just kind of ignored the state of being and moved on with the program.

I loved chanting every evening.  I would climb to the 3rd floor of the Vietnamese monastery, take off my shoes and walk in freezing stockinged feet into the chapel where different groups of nuns would lead chants.  It was surprising how sonorous women’s voice could be … in Pali, in Vietnamese, in Chinese, in Tibetan … and how the harmonies and rhythms of words I didn’t understand could be so soothing.

January 12

Leaving Viashali by bus.  Forty women who had been together seven days listening to the talks, exaltations, chanting and complaints of 500 Buddhist women.

Lichee groves, poverty, sand that grows bananas and mangoes.  Exotic buildings in ruin or extreme disrepair.  Round stick huts with grass roofs.  Chickens peck at muddy trash; eggs in cartons behinds.  They smile in the squalor, close to the base of life.

Sheaves of local wheat.

Traffic jam throught Patna at 10 mph.  Friendly people wave at our bus, lots of activity through the marketplaces and construction sites.  All maner of vehicles, half repainted buildings, large orange sun on the hazy western horizon.  Eyes meet from one vehicle to another; mind and humanity shared.

January 13

Last night in Rajgir, this morning to the magnificent ruins of Nalanda University, which flourished in 600a.d.  The remains have been restored with brick, but original stone work can be seen, as well as carving, and the architecture and grandeur of the place is intact.  Seven monasteries are semi-reserved with dormitories for monks and a central debate area where students hammered out the meaning of  the dharma, I suppose, as all philosophies and religions still do in some sort of forum.  I don’t have enough knowledge of Buddhism to know who and what was actually debated, but I can see that the library and rooms for theological study were immense. And important.  We were told that the prestige of the university eventually fell because of laziness and/or corruption, and the books were burned and buildings were eventually sacked by the Moslems.  The ruins were never rebuilt for use, as Buddhism lost importance in India.  I was struck by the thought  that this site is so like others I’ve seen .. Tikal,  Copan, even Angkor Wat … these great buildings of stone, spread over vast areas and stretching to the sky.  Intricate stories were told within their walls, of gods and men making their way in the world.

India has been everything people have told me.  Much of everything … now that we’re away from Vaishali I see people who are working and producing.  Markets look prosperous and the food and vegetables look fresh and abundant.  The number of vehicles has increased, as well a the variety.  Bicycles, trucks, tongas (small gas powered golf carts used as taxis), bicycle trucks, horse drawn buggy, and pedestrians share the roadways with goats, cows, chickens. It’s a huge cacophony (I’ll think of that word a lot) of textures and colors and emotions.

Vishal -- Stupa & Vultures Peak

A bus ride, a stop, and then on to a busy, large tourist attraction; aerial chair lift to the top of a lushly vegetated mountain.  A large white stupa at the top marks a place where Buddha taught.  We walked on up by foot to Vulture’s Peak where he stayed with Ananda and another disciple and gave the Heart Sutra.  Pathway is a gamet of hawkers of mala beads, post cards, books; at the top thousands of prayer flags, bits of golden offereings on the rocks, and guardian monkeys which may be reborn as humans since they are so near the Buddha’s steps and words.  They are not as offensive as the beggers and hawkers who I close my heart to as I walk down.

From flat farm field of Vaishali to the mountains outside of Rajgir.

It’s all been exotic: the trees, trimmed naturally, and the palms towering above them; the old men wearing shawls over their heads, walking barfoot with staff; the fires on the sides of roads, in villages where there is little or no electricity, a single light bult somewhere in the maze of dirt streets; children waving as we bump by ramshackle homes. 

Mist, land, trees, fire, I'm taken by this land, and its miles of poverty.

On this rutted road between Rajgit and Bodhgaya our large, white, 40 passenger tourist bus seems taken out of time.  We roll through the darkness not knowing what’s around us.  It seems vaguely sinister, dangerous, but we keep going.  How can that be?  Wouldn’t anyone in their right mind stop and find out where we are?  Wouldn’t we find a better way?  The driver does stop at a junction and presumably asks directions.  And we turn left onto another rutted road.