Hit by Enlightenment (India Report #2)

23 11 2010
Mahabodhi Temple – day and night

Day and night at Mahabodhi Temple

I’m a little slow on my India follow-up. It’s been an exhausting week of finding out that the worsening “Kathmandu cough” I’ve had is actually bronchitis, probably brought on by the enormous amount of pollution in this city (since I’ve never had bronchitis in my life). In addition, I was working on a presentation on the influence of the “East” on American art for an upcoming international arts conference. Now that some of the more dramatic moments of my Nepal life have been temporarily settled, I can finally sit down to post about Bodhgaya, India.

Bodhgaya is where Buddha supposedly attained enlightenment while sitting under a bodhi (pipal) tree. The town is a major pilgrimage destination for Buddhists and others alike, and every nation with a healthy number of Buddhists has erected their own temple and/or monastery. First, we had to get to Bodhgaya from Varanasi, about 6 hours away, with our trusty driver Ram. We had tour guides within each town, city or at major tourist destinations but between each of those, we had Ram. He and my husband chattered away in Hindi and from Ram we learned probably more than we did from any of the guides. He told us about local customs, which industries were big in certain areas, and food. Did you know that Indian chapati bread tastes best when cooked over a fire fueled by dried cow dung patties? I know some are thinking, “Oh, that’s gross,” but somewhere in the world, someone probably thinks it’s weird that Americans enjoy hickory-smoked bar-b-que.

We did have a good guide in Bodhgaya, because he was actually interested in the topic of Buddhism on a personal level. When I have hired travel guides (not just in India, but in other parts of the world including the U.S.) I’ve found that 60% of the time you get someone who just rattles off a list of facts they’ve memorized from a book. (Being a professor on the lookout for plagiarized papers/presentations, I’m pretty good at spotting this trend). When someone isn’t invested in a topic and they don’t really know it in-depth, it makes it difficult to follow their delivery, and asking follow-up questions is nearly impossible because they’re unprepared. But our Bodhgaya guide had informally studied Buddhism with various monks and was excitedly planning to take part in a 10-day meditation retreat next year. So, his delivery of the material was passionate and based on both factual information and his own experiences. He was actually happy when we asked questions!

The major Enlightenment sites are clustered around the Mahabodhi Temple and document each stage of Buddha’s final quest for enlightenment. He didn’t just attain enlightenment and head immediately to Sarnath to preach about it, but stuck around for a while to meditate upon his spiritual journey. Surrounding the temple complex are wooden planks that people can rent in order to prostrate or meditate upon holy ground. It’s even possible to meditate all night within the complex so long as you purchase a ticket before they lock the gates, and local vendors were selling mosquito tents for those wishing to meditate more comfortably throughout the night and day.

Monks under shade of Buddha's bodhi tree

Monks under shade of Buddha's bodhi tree

The bodhi tree itself is huge. You can’t actually sit against it since a stone fence surrounds it, but the long branches extend far enough out that you can sit in their shade, as you see the saffron-robed monks doing in this photograph. This isn’t Buddha’s original tree. Emperor Ashoka’s wife, so the story goes, jealously killed that tree, because Ashoka devoted himself to Buddhism after converting in the 2nd century BCE. Before she killed it, a cutting from the original tree was planted in Sri Lanka and the Bodhgaya tree is a cutting from the Sri Lanka tree.

As I was photographing the tree, a small branch fell and hit me on the head. Maybe I was too “in the moment” to be anything but annoyed and should’ve realized that any branches or leaves from Buddha’s tree would be highly sought after, but within seconds, several people dove toward my feet (including a couple monks and my husband) to collect the leaves and now broken bits of branch that hit me. Does getting hit by a sacred tree branch mean I’m blessed? I sure hope so. At least, that’s how I’m interpreting it.

I was able to photograph some nice water images as part of my ongoing water series. During our Bodhgaya tour, we drove across the Falgu River, to the spot where Buddha, in one of his pre-Buddha moments of frustration, threw a metal bowl into the river and said something to the effect, “If I am to reach the highest spiritual plain, let this bowl float upriver against the current. If it floats downriver, I’ll give up my quest.” Well guess what? The bowl did the impossible and floated upriver, pointing the way to the bodhi tree. Hence, the story and symbolism of this place made it the perfect spot for me to be creating splashes, as I’m sure Buddha’s bowl would have done.

My photography assistants on Falgu River near Bodhgaya

My photography assistants on Falgu River near Bodhgaya

During the photographic process, we attracted some attention from the local village children. They became my helpers and you can see them in this image. The oldest, whom you see in the front, was very interested from a scientific perspective and told us about his studies into nature and the human body. He’s very hopeful of one day becoming a doctor and asked if we could send him books about brains (the mind) and lungs and the diseases that affect them. So, any of you Mount Mercy nursing and biology students reading this blog: if you have entry-level science materials that we could send in a care package, please pass them along to Jane Gilmor and my husband will FedEx them to our curious young friend in order to encourage him toward achieving his dream. My husband was once a small boy in a village home with dirt floor and no electricity or running water. With the help of family, friends and complete strangers who extended their kindnesses (like the Catholic nun who gave him some money for the last little bit of money he needed for his plane ticket to America, or the volunteers from English-speaking countries who helped him improve his English) he made it to the United States. Now, he’s one of those immigrant success stories you read about all the time. When we met this studious boy who clearly could succeed if given the chance, I thought of my husband and all the other people like him who just need a break.

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Tuk-tuk goose? No, tuk-tuk rooster.

21 09 2010
Kathmandu Bus Map

Bus Map for two of Kathmandu Valley's cities: Kathmandu proper and Patan

I wouldn’t say I’ve mastered the transportation system here – not even close – but let’s just say I’m becoming more confident with it.  The first few weeks I was walking A LOT everyday. I love walking but now that I’ve settled in and life is busier, I can’t always spend 30 minutes walking to nearby destinations. The monsoon rains are lessening, but that 30 minutes meant my legs were covered in mud by the time I arrived anywhere. And it’s not like I can just throw my clothes into the washing machine when I get home. Taxis are fine too and it’s possible, even with “foreigner charges” to get from one end of town to the other for about 200 rupees ($2.75) but do that a few times everyday and it adds up quick. So, I started investigating public transportation, which is actually one of the best ways to get to know a culture. Plus, riding public transportation helps reinforce my knowledge of Devanagari script numerals.

I found a bus route map on another Nepal travel blog and decided to tackle the challenge. I’d been warned that women are sometimes sexually harassed on buses and that it was better to sit up front and/or near other women, so my first ventures were on smaller tuk-tuks instead of the bigger buses. Besides, the name ‘tuk-tuk’ is so fun to say, who wouldn’t want to ride one? They run on cooking gas and don’t travel very fast, so I figured in the worst case scenario I could always jump out the open back door and catch a taxi. Most shorter distance routes, whether tuk-tuk, tempo or bus, cost about 10 rupees (15 cents), which sure beats taxi fare.

Kathmandu tuk tuk

Kathmandu tuk-tuk

Next I tried the tempos. These are the equivalent of 12-15-passenger American vans, though they fit WAY more people in here. I rode a tempo during rush hour last week and counted at least 26 people. And it felt like 26 people, too. The advantage of the tempos and  buses is they’re faster and less bumpy than the tuk-tuks. Sometimes, they’re a little too fast and that can be a problem, too!

I’ve been riding public transportation as much as possible the last two weeks but still walking a fair amount because it’s rare for buses to arrive at your exact location. Tuk-tuks, tempos and buses stop running at night, so I reserve taxis for my evening excursions, when I’m in a hurry or when I need to be somewhere complicated requiring multiple bus transfers (though I’m getting the hang of transfers, too).

Even though it’s a large capital city, there just isn’t a late night scene here. Partly because Nepal is semi-feudal, it’s early to bed and early to rise. My neighborhood quiets by 11:00pm and the rooster (yes, there are chickens outside my apartment) starts crowing at 5:00am. People rise to bathe at neighborhood water taps at 4:30am or to worship, so there is a soft chanting of mantras every morning, sounds of people at their morning toilet, and the trusty rooster out back.

Kathmandu Bus

Friendly Kathmandu bus

Immersion Illness

19 08 2010

After moving into my apartment, there was shopping to do and one of the hallmarks of an international experience is determining in which store to buy things. Students from our Mount Mercy Mexico trip 2 years ago have fond memories of the 2-hour excursion to find bubble wrap. One would find bubble wrap in shipping or office supply stores in the U.S., but where does one find bubble wrap in Mexico if the same stores don’t exist? Each of these shopping trips requires a walk or a taxi ride. If you’ve ever played the video game “Frogger” you’ll understand what it’s like to cross a Kathmandu street. Navigating the streets is an artform. It can be dangerous to react by moving suddenly because most drivers anticipate your direction and move to avoid you. If you stray or stop suddenly (my natural reaction) you’ll get hit. Most streets are very small and congested with cars, trucks, and tons of motorcycles weaving their way through. There are almost no sidewalks anywhere and where there are sidewalks, they end abruptly or contain gaping holes and debris so that most people walk on the road anyway. Running a simple errand can be exhausting because you must be alert at all times.

I had good taxi experiences up until yesterday when a driver quoted me too much for a ride back to my apartment. I knew it was too much so I asked him to use the meter.  He compensated by driving me around to a completely different neighborhood so that the metered price would match the quoted price he wanted. I knew we were in the wrong neighborhood and there was no excuse for it. If there had been a bandh (strike) or something I would understand, but I’m notified by the American Embassy of all bandhs via text message and email and there was nothing happening then. Irritating.

Being married to a Nepali with relatives in Kathmandu makes my Fulbright experience a lot different from most Nepal Fulbright scholars and students. I’ve been here one week now and I realized I haven’t been to any tourist sites yet. I’ve spent most of the week in meetings, running errands or hanging with my in-laws, eating Nepali daal-bhaat-tarkaari (lentils, rice and curried vegetables) at least twice a day, drinking chiya (sweetened milk tea), watching Bollywood soaps and videos on TV, and passively engaging in a favorite Nepali pastime: gossip.

To cap the total immersion, my mother-in-law was in the hospital. After going to two different hospitals to find her, I visited several times and spent the better part of yesterday morning waiting to speak with her doctor. I had to leave for an appointment before he made the rounds to her room, which she shared with three other people and a host of visitors who were very curious about the white woman (that would be me) in their midst. A Nepalese hospital is an awfully strange place to find a foreigner.

After all this, I needed a break so I confined myself to my apartment today and did very banal but comforting things like cleaning the bathroom.

Better than any relaxation CDs or sound machines, the nightly monsoon rains are calling me to sleep.