Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Patience and flexibility prevail

Got my wake-up call this morning. Fifteen minutes early, in fact. The streets of Patna were empty at 4:30 except for the newspaper delivery men, a few construction workers getting an early start shovelling dirt out of a dump truck, and a guy pasting movie posters on city walls.

A rickshaw driver gave me a lift the last half of the way and I arrived at the train station to find hundreds of people camped out on the floors. The departure board didn't show my 05:20 train, so I made an enquiry at the desk. Your train is 10 hours late, I was told. While I was standing there trying to digest that, he motioned for me to come around back and took me to the station master to see if I could change my ticket for the express train that was arriving in the next 30 minutes. Unfortunately, e-tickets are non-changeable and non-refundable.

Fortunately, 10 hours gave me enough time to visit Vaishali. So I went out front and found a taxi and off we went. By the time we crossed the Ganges (on what is one of the world's longer bridges, taking us 8 minutes to cross), the fog descended and turned the drive to Vaishali into a spooky, creepy crawl across a landscape that was only a couple of meters deep on any side.

It was still quite foggy when we reached the historical sites, which hung in the mist, bereft of their surroundings, like stupas in a dream. The fog was so thick it collected on trees and you could hear the pitter patter of water hitting the ground.

The fog finally lifted once we were about halfway back to Patna, and it was quite amazing to see so much life and landscape that we had driven through nearly blind.

On reaching Patna station I found my train further delayed until 18:00, giving me plenty of time to check out Patna museum. Besides housing some great statuary, the museum has a small sample of what are claimed to be ashes from the Buddha's cremation, taken from one of the stupas at Vaishali. To see only the relics the museum asks an additional US$12.50 on top of the US$6.00 general admission, an outrageous amount in India, where tickets to state-funded archaeological museums costs US$0.10. I chose not to pay for the relics, which are housed behind double pad-locked doors.

While the state authorities proved unwelcoming in their pricing, the people of the state were much friendlier. I was stopped several times in the museum by young people asking where I was from and what I was doing in Patna. I must be quite a rarity. In fact, in my two days here I haven't seen another foreigner on the streets. The welcome continued outside the museum, where a local press photographer was happy to find an exotic subject for his assignment and who obliged for a couple of personal photos.

And here I am now writing about it, after which I'll be off to the train station to see if my train has been delayed any further.

The trick to seeing India seems to be to travel loose, keep smiling, and ride the wave wherever it wants to go.


Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Christmas in Patna

Life in Bodhgaya was a bit like a Buddhist Club Med - a morning-to-evening schedule of activities, all meals provided on site, nothing to worry about except what to wear and whether to shower that day.

After leaving my second retreat on the 21st, I kicked around for a couple of days taking photos, enjoying the ambience of the prayer festival, and organizing the next leg of my journey. Getting back on the road has been a huge challenge in pr acting patience.

I woke up yesterday at 05:00, my scheduled departure time, and got my 04:00 wake up call just a couple of minutes later. Not unsurprisingly, my driver wasn't waiting when I got downstairs 15 minutes later. A call to the travel agent brought a reply of "Just coming," and sure enough a few minutes later there they were.

We spent most of the day touring the Buddhist sites of Rajgir and Nalanda, finishing up around 14:00. The plan was to drive on to visit Vaishali, but given the late hour I asked the driver to drop me in Patna, the capital city of the state of Bihar, 2.5 hours from Nalanda.

My driver Deepak turned out to be a person with an agitated state of mind, swearing at other drivers, driving constantly with the horn, cutting off bicycles, and generally behaving as if he were in great hurry to get somewhere and the world was in his way. He also displayed his impatience with me when I lingered too long at one spot, or asked to go somewhere he thought was off the main tourist route.

I just smiled and went about my way. I wasn't going to let him spoil my day.

Of course, with the constant buzzing of the horn, the bouncing up and down across rough roads, and the swerving back and forth as we passed other cars or ran around pot holes started to wear on me by the end of the day. I was tired by the time we reached Patna, where I asked Deepak if he could drop me at a hotel. He dropped me instead at the train station, a good 15 minute walk from where I wanted to be. Still, no problem. Rickshaws cost only US$0.25.

But asking me to pay full fare when we hadn't visited Vaishali was a bit too much to take with a smile. I had payed the agent in Bodhgaya half the full fare, the remainder to be delivered to the driver on arrival at my destination. When Deepak remained obdurate, I telephoned the agent who, after some pressing, agreed to a reduced price, which I gave to a scowl-faced Deepak.

To get to the hotel from the phone booth, I had to walk by Deepak's car. He asked me then with a straight face, ''Sir, please give me my tip." I just smiled and kept walking.

Finding the hotel and checking in was an uncomplicated relief, but the front desk clerk didn't seem too helpful. He couldn't book me a car to Vaishali the next day, he couldn't tell me about schedules for Christmas mass in Patna churches, he didn't know the church phone numbers, and he couldn't call anyone to find out. So, I did it myself. The local tourism office was still open, but the guy there also didn't know the timings for mass, nor did he have phone numbers. = sigh=

After dropping my bags in my room, I got a rickshaw to what turned out to be the residence of the Archbishop. The church wasn't open (as I suspect many beggars and homeless would use it to camp out), but as you can see the place was well lit and the local community was visiting to light candles and offer prayers.

The church was having a midnight vigil beginning at 23:30, but it was far too early to think about hanging around, or even going back at a later time. On the way to my hotel, I ran across another church where the doors were open. A group of teenage girls was practicing signing, presumably for the Christmas mass.

Back at the hotel I ordered some hot tea to be delivered to my room. The waiter arrived and just walked right into the room without even knocking. What he delivered was a pot of tea with a film of oil on top. When I mentioned this when he came to collect the bill, he tried to explain it by saying the milk has oil. I drank it black. He lingered for a tip. I didn't give him one.

This morning I woke up at 05:00. Not because of any noise, though there was plenty of that shortly thereafter, including loud voices in the hall and banging doors. I did meditation until 6:00, which was when I was expecting my wake-up call. It never came.

I mentioned to the guy at the front desk that he had forgotten something. He looked perplexed, but then it dawned on him. "Your wake-up call," he said and and gave me a weak grin (but no apology).

Outside was a heavy fog and a few shadows walking through the mist. I found a rickshaw driver who said he knew where St Mary's church is, but in fact did not. But that was ok. He got me closer to my destination. A young man we met on the road suggested I take motorized transport as St Mary's is a bit far for a rickshaw, so we flagged down an auto-rickshaw and he got me a little bit further before deciding he wasn't going to drive anymore. I flagged down another going in the same direction and he got me to the church, but not before driving me through some narrow, pot-holed streets in some back alley neighborhood to deliver a passenger who was already in the car when I got in.

Once we got to the church he tried to overcharge me, which I wasn't having. My patience was by then very thin. He went away with the usual fare.

I walked around St Mary's for a few minutes to try and come back to a more calm state of mind, and in doing so ran into a young man who wished me Happy Christmas and introduced me to the Father, who came out to shake hands and say hello in his long underwear.

The doors to the 18th century church, the oldest in the state of Bihar, were opened just before 08:00 and I joined the local community for their Christmas mass, conducted entirely in Hindi and featuring music on the harmonium and tabla. After communion we all filed outside to shake hands and wish each other a Merry Christmas. Being the only foreigner in attendance, I was quite an attraction. I think I had to shake about 200 hands - and enjoyed every moment of it. It was a very special Christmas indeed.

It was only when I got ready to leave the church that I found out that the auto-rickshaw drivers are on strike for the next three days. The guys who picked me up in the morning must have been getting in a few last-minute fares before retiring for the day. That left rickshaw the only option for getting back to town, a slow one-hour ride through a still slightly foggy Patna. Along the way, we passed a funeral procession.

More changes to my itinerary awaited following breakfast. Because it took me so long to get back from church, driving out to Vaishali became problematic. So I gave that up and decided to do the museum, which is supposed to have a great collection of Buddhist art. Got to the museum to find it closed. The government takes off for Christmas! Stopped at the local skyscraper to get a panoramic view of the city and it too was closed for the holiday. Went to the ATM to see if my card works here - it wouldn't in Bodhgaya - and it didn't.

At that point there was little more to do than go to an internet cafe and write to you. Sorry to have gone on for so long.
Tomorrow I have a 05:00 train to Varanasi. The ride is only 3-4 hours, but as my Indian friend says, you always add at least 1-2 hours to any published time. So, all I have planned for tomorrow is to get to Varanasi and find a hotel. Anything else is a bonus.

Hope you had a Merry Christmas and to hear from you someday soon.


Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Flying high over Bodhgaya

Just a few hours ago I emerged back into the world after 10 days of silence. Thankfully, I emerged here in Bodhgaya, a sleepy rural town of very little consequence except to Buddhists. No trains, one road, two ATMs. The biggest buildings are temples, most of the businesses cater to tourists, and most of the tourists are not here to party.

The 10 day retreat was arduous but enlightening, one of the best 10 days I've spent in recent memory. I haven't become an enlightened being, but I feel I'm not the same person who left Kathmandu in November. It is not easy to describe and since I don't have a lot of time to write, it will have to wait for later to me to say what happened and how I feel. For those that might be interested in reading more about what I was involved with, have a look here: If you ever thought about joining a course, but had reservations about the effectiveness of the technique, put those doubts aside.

This morning I'm running around doing a little shopping for necessities. I'll be taking another 10 day vow of silence beginning this afternoon, this time to study Tibetan Buddhism.

All my very best wishes for a happy holiday season. See you again in 10 days.