Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Holy Sites Bodh Gaya

Crushed in Bodh Gaya

Aimee and I left early from Calcutta for the train to Bodhi Gaya, one of the holiest sites in India. In India there is a women's queue and a men's queue for tickets. Thank God for that because we would have waited hours. There are also separate compartments for women on the train and thank God for that, too, because it would have been hell having to put up with the hacking, spitting, ball scratching and nose picking that is male social etiquette in Asia. We rode in a small compartment with a grandmother, her daughter and her baby grandchild.

Everything was perfect until we went to get off the train. We gathered up our things and stood in the aisle as it screeched into Gaya. It was dark, and peering out the window I couldn't see anything because there were no lights on the platform. I re-adjusted the knapsack on my back and took Aimee's hand and we waited for the doors to open so we could get off quickly, but when the door to the train opened a wall of water carrying trunks and suitcases and boxes and chickens surged onto the train and thrust us all backwards towards the seats and empty compartments we'd just vacated. Everybody started screaming as we reeled against the stampeding hordes galloping by in their mad scramble to find seats, thrusting Aimee and I and everybody else out of the way. I hung on to her and for a moment I thought we were going to be crushed or suffocated. I told her to hang on to the back of my knapsack and DON'T LET GO FOR CHRIST'S SAKE and then I leaned into the surging tide and pushed and shoved and swore and elbowed my way through until we finally got to the door of the train and jumped down on to the platform. I could feel Aimee's hand clutching the back of my knapsack as she collapsed beside me. I lost a shoe but we didn't have any broken bones.

The platform we found ourselves on reminded me of the movie Blade Runner. There were no lights, only the ubiquitous flickering of candles and small fires. The smell of urine and smoke permeated the air and I held my breath. I tripped over somebody lying on the ground and that's when I realized just how many people were camping out and making it their permanent address. Babies wrapped up in tattered blankets slept beside their mothers and orphans in tattered, filthy clothing wandered about asking for handouts. I didn't go near the toilet, a platform with holes. When the kids spotted us they all ran towards us in a mob with their hands out, jumping up and down. Backsheesh! Baksheesh! Baksheesh! They pulled on my arm and tugged at my bags and I wished I could have given them all money because they were such a sorry looking lot. I pushed past them and into the station where I was surprised to see that a cow had also taken up residence and was scrounging around for his dinner.

Men on horses wearing turbans, bullock carts, tongas, cycle-rickshaws as well as bicycles crowded the road while cows and goats roamed freely. It seemed I had either traveled back to the fifteenth century or traveled ahead into a post-nuclear future. We passed food stalls, restaurants, kiosks, and people drinking tea until we came to a small hotel. I asked a fellow wearing a turban sitting outside what looked to be a hotel whether he had a room and he nodded and picked up a gas lamp and took us up a dark flight of stairs to a cramped room on the first floor. It had one double bed and a table and we had our own bathroom - a hole in the floor. It wasn't the Ritz but then, it wasn't the refugee camp I'd left behind at the train station, either.

Of course, everything looks different in the morning. We visited the massive Great Buddha Statue.

Then on to the Mahabodhi Temple complex.

When we were in Bodhgaya we stayed at a barracks that was empty when we were there, but has been turned into the Tourist Bungalows. There were more than 10 large rooms with at least 25 bunks in each one. It was strange and spooky staying there all a-l-o-n-e at night. We had to walk down a long, dark walkway to get to our dormitory room at night and the power wasn't very reliable so frequently we were in the dark. Thank God I had a great flashlight. Don't leave home without one if you're going to India.

The poor are everywhere in India, some living their entire life sleeping on pavements. This is just outside the wall of the Mahabodhi temple complex.