Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Buddhist Circuit

We've covered a lot of territory in the last week, which helps explain my slowness in posting. We left Pokhara for Lumbini by public bus 4 days ago. The bus was hilarious. It left nearly 2 hours late. A woman brought a couple of chickens on the bus in a basket and sat in the aisle with these chickens nipping at my elbow. A few hours later, a grandma got on the the bus, and since all the seats were already taken, she sat down right in my seat and squished me over. Bus seats are not particularly comfortable at the best of times, and now I was sharing a seat with another person. We sat together for 2 hours, sweating away. After she got up, a father tried to get me to hold his daughter for him, but I'd had enough sharing and insisted on having my seat to myself. He found someone else to hold her while he hung out with his buddies.

As we crossed into the Terrai state, we met the Maoist strikers, who stopped all traffic. The bus driver kicked everyone off the bus, and turned around and left for Pokhara. We stumbled around in the heat (44 degrees) with the other tourists trying to figure out what to do. We eventually decided to hire rickshaw bicycles to take us the 2 hours into the next town where we were supposed to be going. We only paid $7 for the ride, and those rickshaw drivers really earned their pay, even though it was probably more than their week's wages.

Once we arrived Lumbini, we visited the first of the 4 famous Buddhist pilgrimage sites - where Buddha was born. The town was really spread out, with lots of international monestaries and pagodas, so we rented bikes and rode around. The heat was intense, but it was all so beautiful.

The next day, we took a 15 hour taxi ride from Lumbini, Nepal down to Varansi, India. We stopped along the way to see Kushinigar- where Buddha died. We had a crazy Indian taxi driver who darted in and out of cars all day, and honked non-stop. I had to close my eyes, because I was sure he was going to hit someone. It was anything but relaxing, but we did cover a lot of territory, despite having to stop and detour around a bunch of election celebrations blocking the roads.

We spent 2 days in Varanasi, and visited both Sarnath - where the Buddha first did his teaching, and Varanasi- site of the famous Ganges River. Sarnath was peaceful, but oh so hot. Varanasi, on the other hand, was insane. Such noise and commotion with so many Indian pilgrims and their families celebrating down at the Ganges River bank at sunset. We saw lots of bathing ghats, as well as cremation ghats. Fortunately, I stayed far away from the river this time and just took pictures (unlike my last visit 15 years ago when I swam in the river and subsequently contracted both giardia and hookworm which stayed with me for over a year, despite many drugs). There were almost as many cows as people down at the ghats, and also people gathering the cow dung to make patties to burn. Mingled with the smells of the men's pissing wall, the smells were overbearing. It's strange to interact with animals so closely, even in cities.

And yesterday we arrived in Bodhgaya - where Buddha achieved enlightenment, again by taxi, after all trains were booked up, even for the tourist quota. Bodhgaya is hot and dusty, but small enough to get around easily on foot. We're indulging in a hotel with a/c, with daily temperatures around 42 or 44. We walk around in the mornings until we're too hot to think, and then head back to the hotel for the afternoon to cool down.

Richard and Adrian have read The Hobbit together, and are now halfway through the first book of the Lord of the Rings. Adrian has never been much of a reader, but somehow he's gotten hooked on this series here, which is almost worth travelling half way around the world for. After looking at Buddhist archeology for a while each day, I guess it gives him a good break. They're hoping to finish this book before we return home now. And just a few more days to go.

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