Saturday, 23 August 2008

It's all about a tree

Arriving at the town of Gaya at 05:30 in the morning after a night-time train ride left me feeling knackered! Outside, having my traditional fag, I was surrounded by at least 9 rickshaw drivers all touting for the early morning trade. I would hate to see what it would be like here in the high season!

Anyway, after the fag it was a 13km ride passing paddy fields, army barracks, small villages and the occasional cow to the village of Bodhgaya. This is the place where Prince Siddhartha Gautama sat underneath a tree and meditated on what it is to be human till he received the “gift of enlightenment” and became the Buddha.

The rickshaw took me to a hotel, where after a bit of haggling a price was agreed, and I could crash out on the bed with the fan whizzing around a full speed.

Later on in the morning it was time for an experience….

There are two ways of viewing this large village. You can either see it as a place where something wonderful happened a long time ago that changed the course of humanity and its history or you can view it as a tourist trap full of people ready to fleece as much money as they can out of you! To be fair it’s a bit of both, the temple areas are peaceful, undisturbed and tranquil but outside the temple gates the people wait…as I found out!

Walking from my hotel to the centre of the village a young man started chatting to me, wanting to improve his English….several hours later he was still following me around like a lost dog looking for his master. Now contrary to most people’s perception I am in fact quite polite but after having him watch me eat lunch, then hanging around outside the internet café for 45 minutes whilst I was online I had just had enough! Finally…he understood that I had had enough of his “company”. It was at this point that he started doing his tourist travel tour agent spiel about all the places he could organise for me to visit in the surrounding area on the following days. After pointing out the amount of time he could have saved himself by telling me this at the start of the day, followed by the words “not interested” he left me alone. (Harsh but fair I feel)

There are many temples here in the village, it seems that every country with a large Buddhist population has one but I was only interested in visiting one of them. The world heritage listed Mahabodhi Temple. The temple is built on the spot where Buddha became enlightened and a cutting of the original Bodhi tree which he meditated under is growing in the very spot of the 1st tree. The main temple is a huge 50 metre pyramidal spire surrounded by stone railings. The rest of the area is divided into quarters and each one is filled with small temple thingies and several trees. Nearby is a small pond or tank where once the Buddha sheltered. The thing that amazed me was that there were fish living in the waters because the colour of the water was the most vivid green I’ve seen in a while!

By now it was the middle of the afternoon and damn it was hot. I was sweating like a pig in a butchers shop….so it was time for a siesta.

In the evening after an amazingly good Thai green curry and two huge spring rolls I went back to the temple for some night time ambience and hopefully to get some atmospheric pictures (I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again I could really use a tripod sometimes). It was quiet and the heavy humid air was stirred only by the beating of a bat’s wing as they swept and swirled around the temple feeding well on into the night.

Walking back towards the hotel the beggars followed…..

The next day, after being informed that my laundry wouldn’t be ready till the late afternoon I was down to my last piece of clean cloth. It was a T shirt; still it could have been worse, it could have been just a pair of socks. Looking clean but feeling oh so dirty I wandered around the area of the village where most of the temples from other countries are to found. China, Thailand, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Tibet, Japan and Nepal all have their temples here and each one was reflecting their cultural and architectural differences.

Sitting down in the restaurant for lunch looking at the menu my heart did a little jump of joy…peanut butter on toast!!!! It’s the little things that sometimes bring the biggest smiles.

Later, walking along the mean streets of downtown Bodhgaya, I ended up by the river and saw the strangest site! On a small sand bar yards from the bank in the shallow Falgu River was a football pitch, complete with permanent goal posts…

Leaving the village of Bodhgaya after two nights was the right decision. Coming from southern India I found the people in the tourist trap too pushy. In fact, I remember chatting to a man in Trichy who warned that people in the north weren’t that friendly and he himself didn’t like to travel in that part of India.
The people are friendly but sometimes when walking down the street you end up feeling that all you are is a dollar sign. Lucky for me that I am blessed with the gift of (or talent for) complete indifference.

So now I am back in the nearby town of Gaya. I’ve a cheap and welcoming hotel near the train station with a small courtyard and an attempt at a sunken garden. Walking around the town I slowly realised that I’m being stared at more here than most place I’ve bimbled around. I know I am not the 1st white guy they have seen, so what’s the attraction?

During the rickshaw ride here I was joined by 8 other people. One was a young mother with her small child. The look on the kids face flickered between fear and awe and shortly I felt the now familiar feeling of a finger touching one of my tattoos and tracing the outline. Looking down at the kid I smiled, which as everyone knows scares them something silly! One day a child might smile back as opposed to tucking its head into the safety of its mother’s arms. At least the kid didn’t start to whimper or cry which is the normal course of events…guess I am just not that paternal!

I am not sure of the length of time I will be spending in India. The idea is tomorrow morning catch an early train to the town of Varanasi and after that head of to Darjeeling and then Nepal. However, I can fly (or bus) from Varanasi straight to Kathmandu. Is four months in India enough? Maybe it’s my desire for a cheese and ham sandwich complete with pork pie and a bottle of cider that’s clouding my thoughts or it could be that after 15 months of travelling not having a place “to belong too” is taking its mental toll?

Anyway back to today, after chilling out in the hotel courtyard reading a few chapters of Mahatma Gandhi’s autobiography I felt the need for a cold Monday afternoon beer. Turns out back in England it is august bank holiday Monday, which took me a while to work out. Popping to the local “wine” shop on the corner it turned out they only sold whiskey…damn. However, the café next door could serve me a beer although it wasn’t the most salubrious of surroundings. Its once white painted walls were covered in at least 30 years of smoke, grease and grim, I loved it!

Come the evening…

Beer and food were the order of the night, having a mostly one sided conversation with a drunk Indian who kept asking me

“Do you know who I am?” or “I know everything about you!”

Followed by me interjecting the sentence “I’m eating” wasn’t on the menu when I entered the restaurant. Have to say it was fun, especially when his less drunk mate at the bar kept pulling him away from my table only for him to race or more realistically stagger back to my table to continue the same three sentence conversation.

One thing that I have come to realise about myself is that I now smell different! Walking around all day under a hot sun makes me sweat. Triking under a hot sun this time last year all day made me sweat. The resulting smell is definitely different!!!

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