Now, it really has been a long time since I lasted posted. I wanted to give this site a bit of a breather, and life in India has been so fast paced that I just haven’t had the urge to write. So I’m back, by (apparently) popular demand. I’ve got a feeling is going to be a long post – you have been warned…
So. India. I’ve been here for just over two weeks. Somehow, the time here has seemed to slip by without me noticing – there is always something to do, someone to talk to, a place to see (usually, at least). In many ways, Nepal was the perfect introduction for the country. Instead of everything hitting me full on – the numbers, the heat, the pace, the chaos, the organisation – I’ve found it’s been a minor step-up. This country is crazy, though, for westerners to get to grips with. The sheer number of people living here, working here, walking on the streets, driving on the roads, changes everything about the place.
I flew into Delhi from Kathmandu on May 3rd (it seemed like the easiest way to cross the border). For the first day after arriving in Delhi, I honestly felt as if I had been thrown back into a European city. I walked through an incredibly modern airport, took an A/C can to my hostel in a leafy Delhi suburb, rode the nicer-than-the-underground metro system and bought a sim-card from a shop surrounded by the colonial neo-classical architecture of Connaught Place. I felt very strange after living in Nepal for so long. I didn’t experience any of the scams tourists are constantly warned about (I still haven’t, in fact).
To me, Delhi seemed like a city of divides. Old Delhi (pre-colonial) versus New Delhi (post-colonial); rich Delhi (Hauz Khas and the surrounding areas) versus poor Delhi (the rest of the city); the modern city versus its ancient monuments, hidden amongst the parks and apartments. It is a city steeped in history.
On my second day, I met up with a friend called Arinjay who happens to live five minutes from where my hostel (the Madpackers) was located. We had a great time, having lunch and visiting some of the tourist spots. Actually knowing someone in the area was so useful – I always think that when coming to a country, you should at least try and experience life as it is for the people who live there. I wouldn’t have had anything like the same experience without his help – especially in my last day. I spent my time in the city (four nights in total) seeing the sights, wandering around the older areas and avoiding the heat. As a whole, India has felt like a harder country to just get out and wander around than Nepal- the roads are too busy, the cities are too large, the days are too hot and the routes are often mazes through small alleys.
I was due to take an overnight train to Gaya on the evening of the 7th, so planned to spend the day see seeing Arinjay again and going around the Qutb Minar (aka huge ruined mosque and associated tower). We had some great ice creams at a lovely shop in Hauz Khas, where we were allowed to basically taste everything on the menu before buying, and said our goodbyes. I hopped into a cab to the monument. After seeing it and taking all the photos I possibly could, I took a tuk-tuk to the nearest metro station so I could be back at the hostel with time to get to the station. The metro was closed. Cue forty minutes of panicked phone calls, resulting with Arinjay booking an uber. I got to the station with half an hour to spare – only to find my train wasn’t on the board.
Eventually – after the time my train was supposed to have left – I discovered it was delayed by two hours. Old Delhi station was chaos – people everywhere, sleeping on every surface, crowding on every platform. I found a waiting room and besides until, watching the signs for my train. It came at 11:30 pm, four hours after I arrived.
We were due to come into Gaya at 9:30 am. But this is India. There is never a need to rush. So, instead, we ambled in at 6:30 pm. A nine-hour delay – which, luckily, had zero effect on my lack-of-plans to be busy in Bodhgaya.
Bodhgaya is one of – if not the – largest Buddhist pilgrimage sites in the world. Allegedly the place in which he practiced ascetic starvation and later achieved enlightenment under a bodhi tree, the town is full of temples belonging to strains of Buddhism from around the world. After my time in Nepal, I was pretty interested to see what it had to offer.
During the train journey, I had befriended a monk from Cambodia also travelling to see Bodhgaya (with his mother); when we arrived, after sunset, we decided to share a lift together for the 15km journey to Bodhgaya from the station. It was so interesting hearing his perspective on the world – he had lived in Australia for some time (he actually had a bit of the accent and called me “mate”, which caught me off-guard at first), and was great to listen to regarding the west’s relationship with south east Asia. My accommodation was at the Root Institute: a Buddhist-founded meditation retreat and culture centre (plus source of very cheap accommodation). During the colder months of the year, the centre offers courses for interested travellers. It was definitely not cold when I was there. So, I arrived and went to my room.
The next few days were very peaceful, though slightly isolating. I had seen all Bodhgaya had to offer by the end of the first day (out of three). I read. I explored the town further. I saw the celebration for the festival of Buddha’s birthday – picture huge crowds circulating around the town. I even ventured into the Buddhist library at the institute and began reading some of the teachings, to learn a little more about the religious side which we had been kept away from in Matepani Gumba. On finishing one of the books – a translation of the Pali canon teachings into English verse – I had a bit of a shock. It was written “from Peterhouse, circa 1920”. I couldn’t believe it – here I was, a world away, reading Buddhist scriptures and there was a reminder about Cambridge university in the opening pages. It turned out to have been written by Lord Chalmers, “sometime master of Peterhouse College and governor of Ceylon”. It was all very spooky.
I was ill on the last day/night in Bodhgaya – but you don’t need to know about that. The next morning (the 12th), I took an early train to Varanasi. I’d been pretty Buddha’d out. Time for Shiva.