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To Bodhgaya and points beyond
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- Subject: To Bodhgaya and points beyond
- From: "Roberta Jenkins" <robertajenkins@xxxxxxxxxxx>
- Date: Wed, 05 Jan 2005 16:21:11 +0900
Despite having the most extensive rail lines in the world, trains in
India are not quite what trains in China are. Perhaps I should have
expected this, but, given that many of the class names are the same and
that the fares are roughly equivalent, I was not prepared for it. The
11:30pm Jodhpur Express from Kolkata was quite a surprise!
First of all, the station. For any of you who are familiar with cattle
markets on the Canadian prairies - vast, low ceilinged buildings, drafty
due to the absense of walls, with longish metal pens that you can see
through and a powerful odor - you have a fair sense of what Howrah (the
main station in Kolkata) is like. Except the smell is worse, and so is
the light. Unlike is practically everywhere else I've ever travelled,
it also has a striking absense of any sort of information facilities or
helpful (even unhelpful!) staff-like people to assist you (on what may
very well be, like it was for us, your maiden voyage on India Rail). We
walked in circles for a while, tried the "Enquiries" window, located in
a dingy back room and manned by a surly fellow with no English abilities
and even less patience, finally caught the eye of another traveller
(Indian) who pointed us in the direction of our tracks. Obstacle one,
Obstacle two - finding the proper car. This would seem to be an easy
enough task - the number is printed on the ticket, right there beside
our seat number, and there are overhead signs clearly visible with the
numbers on them. Except that those car numbers and the actual car
numbers are not the same. And furthermore, the cars are not arranged in
numerical (or any other, that I could discern) order. On the outside of
each door, a paper list of all the passengers is pasted to the metal,
along with the class prefix and car number. So there may be 5 car #9s,
all in different places, and it's the "sl" (3rd class sleeper) or "as"
(a/c sleeper) or "hr" (human refuse) before the #9 that is important to
pay attention to. We walked a long, long way to find our car.
We were surprised inside, having paid for sleeper tickets, to find seats
rather than bunks. Another trick to confuse we poor train virgins.
Seems that Indian sleepers (at least in our lowly class) have sleeping
hours - the middle bunk is hung suspended by chains (a feat you have to
manage yourself, and which is a little nerve wracking when you occupy
the lowest bunk, as I did) between the hours of 11:30pm and 5:30am. The
rest of the time it is flat against the wall, forming the back of a
large-ish bench seat for half of the 8 people in your (open)
compartment. Not a bad system, just unexpected. Luckily for us, our
helpful (and bemused) Bangladeshi seat-mate took pity on us not long
into the trip and showed us the chains. We each took our spots,
stretched out long (bags locked carefully to the provided chains
underneath, or under our heads as pillows), and attempted sleep.
This is obstacle number 4. How to sleep in a very air-conditioned car,
no coverings, when each time you manage to slip past exhaustion and into
dreamland the determined chai seller (a kind of spicy - heavily
caffeinated - Indian tea) comes through brandishing his large silver
kettle and peering into each compartment one by one to ask in his
monotonous drone "chai? chai? chai? chai? chai? chai? chai?"
The final obstacle, once again unexpected, is knowing when to get off
the train. Though we were lucky to board a train at its point of
origin, and therefore on time, Indian trains are notorious for their
shifting schedules. I've met people who arrived at their detinations
most of an hour early, and many more who have arrived up to an entire
day late. Stop names are not announced, and if you are at the back of
the train (as we were), you pull in behind where all the visible signs
are and therefore have no natural way of telling at which stop you have
arrived. I think Indians are naturally telepathic in this regard, since
no one else had any difficulty, but it was a big problem for us. 5
minutes before our scheduled arrival time, I woke with a start to
realize that we were stopped - seeing one of my 2 travelling companions
do the same. The third remained blissfully unaware on the top bunk.
Where are we? Is this our stop? My companion and I start frantically
asking everyone we can see, most of whom ignore us completely. By the
time we finally find someone vaguely helpful, the train has started
moving again and it's too late. Aaargh! Luckily for us, thanks to the
pervasive morning fog, it was not our stop. And by the time ours did
appear out of the whiteness, it was late enough in the day that others
were awake to alert us to the fact. We made it!
The station in Gaya is small and, except for the masses of over-eager
touts (moto-rickshaw drivers wanting to take you around), unremarkable.
The 3 of us, plus a couple of extra Korean men (so young!) we picked up
on the way, found a willing driver without difficulty for the 30 min.
trip out to the neighbouring village of Bodhgaya, our actual
destination. 5 passengers, 1 driver, a lot of luggage, bouncing down a
dirt lane in the countryside (there is countryside in India!!!!!),
watching the sun burn through the fog and breathing the clean, crisp air
rushing through the open carriage of our chugging rickshaw. A beautiful
After the chaos of Kolkata, the quaint country life of Bodhgaya is
completely surreal. A town which exists solely because of its Buddhist
significance - it is the place where Buddha attained his enlightenment
(25 or 26 hundred years ago, depending on whether you listen to the Sri
Lankan contingent round about town or the Thai contingent, which is
smaller but, in their distinctive saffron robes, infinitely easier to
pick out from the maroon masses), and therefore the most important
Buddhist pilgrimmage site in the world. At this time of year it is also
a home-away-from-home for a large number of exiled Tibetans, who have
set up a bustling market and tent-village all their own. Theirs are by
far the most common faces around town, clear and wide and smooth, with
perpetual smiles and traditional costumes and long hair braided through
with silver coins, bits of fabric, and other common treasures. They are
wonderfully friendly and seem to be as intrigued by me as I am by them.
My two days has already stretched into 3 (the others left this morning),
and I don't know when I will go.
My first day here I took in an afternoon lecture by a British woman (on
video) who is a Tibetan nun - in fact, when she was ordained (or
whatever it is you are into Buddhist monkhood) 30 years ago, she was
only the 2nd western woman ever to do so. Now she teaches in Northern
India. Fascinating. Not only the lecture, whose ideas were an
interesting mix of a variety of traditions (religious and
philosophical), but also the collection of westerners in various states
of submersion into the local Buddhist cutlure who were present. I sat
at the back and watched them as much as the video. This is a fantastic
place for people watching. This afternoon, I am looking forward to the
second half. Otherwise, I have been wandering endlessly (in and out of
town - something for its own message later this evening when the
internet is not so slow), enjoying the abundant food delights of town
(the vast majority of which are Tibetan), and making new friends.
Completely different from my first days in India, and (though I still
crave the intensity of the city), a very welcome break.
Time to rejoin the sunshine and pilgrims outside...more soon! Love,