Sitting somewhere near the top of the Ten Places I Didn’t Expect To Be Writing This Today list is.. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA. ‘Tis true. I came home to be with my family a couple weeks ago after learning that my grandmother had passed away. Sorry I didn’t let more of you know I was back but I decided this was time best spent with my family and resting. And rest well I have. Lest ye fret about the mission of your wander-happy friend, I ain’t done with the traipsing quite yet. Before I get into that, though, let me tell you what I’ve been up to since I left off.
From the lung-clogging exhaust and sensory overload of Kolkata, I took an overnight train from the state of West Bengal west through Jharkand and into the state of Bihar in the northeast of the country. In case you have any interest in where that is, here ya go. I should do this a lot more often.. The red line marks the approximate route I took from Kolkata to southern Bihar (click on the pic and then on ‘all sizes’ in the next window to see a detailed version).
Bihar is probably the poorest state in all of India – which says a lot about the conditions there. However, Bodhgaya, a small town near the bottom of the state, is a beacon in the area. Bodhgaya is also known as ‘Buddhagaya’ and marks the spot where the Buddha (aka Siddhartha Gautama) gained enlightenment while meditating under a banyan fig tree 2,500 years ago. Today, the city attracts Buddhists from all over the world and is one of the four main pilgrimage sights for devotees including Lumbini in Southern Nepal (remember this post?) where he was born, Bodhgaya where he gained enlightenment, Sarnath where he gave his first lectures, and Kushinagar where he died. The last three are all in India.
Like Lumbini, Bodhgaya is dotted with beautiful monasteries built by devotees from all over the Buddhist world including Bhutan, Thailand, Vietnam, Japan and Tibet.
It also has one of the largest Buddha statues in the world which, at about 80′, is pretty impressive when you’re standing at its base. Someone told me this one (close-up at the top of this post), which was built by the Japanese, has something like 20,000 smaller statues inside. That’s a whole lot of concentrated warm and fuzzy goodness.
But most of the visitors to this little town come to see the spot where the dude did his thing. The Mahabodi Temple is a magnificent temple and garden area in the middle of town that abuts the exact spot where he was sitting when the golden lightbulb turned on.
He had spent weeks in the area moving from tree to tree contemplating the ideas that would eventually make up what we now know as Buddhism.
The story goes that the original bodhi tree was destroyed 2,200 years ago by the then king of the region during a push to eliminate Buddhism from the area. Thankfully, someone had the sense to take a sapling earlier from that original tree to another safer spot in Sri Lanka. When the original was destroyed, they brought a sapling from that one back to the original spot in Bodhgaya and re-planted it. It’s now a massive sprawling beast with what look like green metal crutches holding up its ancient and now sagging limbs that seem to take in devotees like wings of a giant ancient wooden angel.
It’s a powerful site to take in for anyone with any interest in Buddhism. Groups of monks in different colored robes from around the world sit here and there, some chanting, some prostrating in prayer for hours, some wrapping fabrics, flags and messages from their home country around the structure at the base of the tree, others meditating silently.
People scurry to catch dying leaves falling from the tree before they hit the ground, all eager to take home an authentic souvenir, a reminder from this, the most sacred place in the world for Buddhists. It’s sorta like the equivalent of Mecca for Muslims. Devout Buddhists aspire to visit this spot at least once in their lifetimes.
I got a chance to experience a little of the magic of the area one afternoon, meditating under that big ‘ol tree for a while myself. I don’t think I’ve hit enlightenment paydirt quite yet, but it did feel pretty damn good sitting there thinking (after I was done, you know, not thinking) about all of the positive forces that have been focused on that place by the millions of visitors over the last 2,500 years. Definitely a highlight of my time in India.
Unfortunately, as I left, I was reminded of how things have changed in that time. Unlike the religious sites in many other countries, nothing is completely sacred here in India. Men stand outside the entrance to the temple hawking fresh green bodhi leaves sealed in plastic, next to internet shops, convenience stalls, travel agencies and stands full of little plastic Buddhas sold by Hindus. All catering to the masses that come to think about getting away from that very sort of thing for a while.
When I wasn’t contemplating my navel, I had a chance to meet some amazing people. Taj and Michel, two Muslim kids from one of the nearby neighborhoods, introduced themselves one day as I was walking back to the Tibetan ‘Karma’ temple monastery where I was staying (how often do you get to stay at a monastery??).
After we all got to know each other, they told me about the uphill battle they face for a good education in Bihar, like young motivated people all over India for that matter. They took me to one school that had been formed in a small delapidated multi-story brick building down a dirty alley in a residential part of town. Instead of windows in some rooms, there were broken holes in the brick walls to let in light. The bottom floor had a single hand water pump in the middle of the dirt floor for the 700 students that attended school there. Students crammed into small classrooms with broken chalkboards, some of them sitting on the ground. Some students, who’s families lived far away, actually lived in the building, sleeping in cramped rooms with one big flat wooden bed together in the middle – with no mattresses in sight. They had two computers in one dusty room but it didn’t look like they worked. The sure as hell didn’t have MySpace.
This may sound extreme, but as I left, I kept thinking that it looked like something I’d expect to find in a war-torn area that had just been bombed. I was astonished when Taj and Mitchel told me that this was a private school, the best option they had in the area, one they had to pay for to attend. It turns out that the only schools that are free are those run by the government, which are horrible. They’re run by teachers who are paid next to nothing and care even less. If kids want any hope of doing anything in their lives, they have to figure out how to make enough money to pay for the private ones, which are still the bottom of the barrel by Western standards. It was damn inspiring to see how excited and appreciative all of the kids were, walking around proudly in coordinated green and white school uniforms and talking about their upcoming tests. For all of this, they were incredibly thankful. I was astounded to learn that by becoming Taj’s ‘sponsor’, I could register him at this private school, pay for his books, uniform and first month’s tuition all for less than $50. When I did, I felt guilty in a way because it was so easy, that we have it so freaking easy in the West, and that he was so appreciative of all of it.
Mitchel found a sponsor (a tourist from Seattle) two years ago and has been attending the private school since then. He had to leave his best friend Taj behind at a government school. It was clear how that opportunity had benefited Mitchel in that time. His English was now nearly fluent and his confidence soaring (he actually learned a lot from singing along to English songs on the radio including some Rolling Stones and Queen songs which he proudly belted out for me – awesome). We celebrated Taj’s enrollment and upcoming adventures at the school with a fat lunch at their favorite place. I hoped it would be easy for him to catch up.
(Here they are hammin’ it up before we parted ways):
(I’m kicking myself for not taking a picture of their school but I did get this one of some kids in front of a gov’t school in the middle of some rice fields outside of town – in equally bad shape, but just as happy to be there)
Unfortunately, I got some news that afternoon that would change the course of this whole journey. I got an email from my dad telling me that my grandmother had passed away. I was completely stunned. Fueled solely on emotion, I decided immediately that I had to go home. I bought a one-way ticket online and decided I’d figure out the future of my travels later. Despite the sadness at the news, I was so happy to be able to see my family. So happy to finally indulge the homesickness I’d been thinking about so much lately. Walking out of the internet shop, as I was thinking about her and what it all meant, I was hit with the idea that I was actually doing just that. Going home. Suddenly, the same street I’d walked down 10 times in the last two days looked completely different. I was looking through it all with the eyes of someone who’s adventure was suddenly now about to end, instead of one who had what seemed like unlimited time and an unending yellow brick road ahead of him as I had before. It was a strange feeling to be mourning the loss of my grandmother and mourning the end of the travel experience at the same time. All without any of the mental preparation about transition and building excitement that I figured I have about a homecoming. I realized how much I’d started to identify myself as this bold wanderer, traipsing around exotic sites and exploring without a care in the world. And now, in a matter of a couple days, I was going to be home in the cold grey winter of the Northeast. A strange feeling.
With all of the travel coordination savvy I could muster, I figured I could get myself from the middle of nowhere in India to Toledo, Ohio in 48 hours…. if everything went exactly as planned. In India. Awesome. That night, I headed to the train station and, after dealing with the standard corruption (negotiating with the ‘Tourist Officer’ about a seat on a superfast train that I’d have to pay ‘extra’ for – read: bribe – and then being led from counter to counter to counter in search of a regular ticket on the slow train just to spite the bastard), I sat for 6 hours amid sleeping bodies and a few ogling locals as I waited for my train and did the math on what it would have to take for me to get home in time to see everyone.
After an eighteen-hour nail biter of a train ride (where I met Haresh and his buddy Sandeep, a customer service agent for Jackson-Hewitt who fields calls from angry tax-confused Americans with, “Hello, this is ‘Shane’ with Jackson-Hewitt, how can I help you?), a one hour ride in rickshaw that nearly broke down in the middle of the highway, an OJ Simpson run through the airport and customs, and twenty-two hours of airport terminals, plane and car rides later, I walked into the post-funeral reception in Toledo, Ohio exhausted, filthy and elated to see everyone. Made it..
Despite the massively mindbending of experience of going from a monastery in Bodhgaya to a Kroger’s in Detroit in two days.. I’ve adjusted well. The time at home has been amazing. I’ve spent a whole lot of time over the last 3.5 weeks doing a whole lot of nothin’. Hanging out with my family (here doing their best Resevoir Dogs impression),
taking hot showers, sleeping late in a comfy bed, having staring contests with my mom’s cat Willie, the coolest animal in the world, eating well (including gorging on as many fresh salads, chips, salsa, fruits, burritos, spoonfuls of peanut butter, and pizza as I can fit in my face), going for long walks with no destination, and watching Spring actually ‘spring’ in the Northeast (the yellows, greens, purples and reds of budding trees, flowers and plants is one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen in a long time) has all been incredibly therapeutic.
At about day fifteen, I realize it had been the longest I’d spent anywhere in the last 9 months and the longest time I’d spent at home in at least 10 years. I finally realized that was the reason I couldn’t get myself to commit to the next step in the trip. I had no idea what to do next, where to go or when. And that was fine.
That didn’t last long though.. One thing was clear when I left India – I was definitely not done traveling. On Saturday, I’m taking a train to NYC to spend some time with my cousin Ed and his fiance Landis before jumping on another plane on Tuesday. This one’s bound for Bangkok, Thailand. I’ll be just long enough to pick up a visa for neighboring Myanmar (aka Burma) where I should be for the next month. After that? Probably Laos and other points unknown in Southeast Asia.
Want to meet me somewhere?