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Monday, January 30, 2012

Random Act of Posting

Sarasvati catches a ride

I'll be offline at least until 11 February beginning tomorrow and I'm just sort of in a gabby mood right now.

I do have to admit that coming back to Bodhgaya was like coming home. I spent the day with Mahendra the day before yesterday (Sunday), discussing the school and checking out the various shrines to Saravasti, for whom Saturday was a big puja day. I had planned to be available; Mahendra and I had discussed this while I was in Varanasi, but my little Indian phone is a capricious fellow, so I didn't get Mahendra's call. As it is, the shrines were really something and the last one we went to was in a village where a new college was being opened.

This last note is huge. I spoke to the founder (via Mahendra and another fellow as translators) who had begun with a high school and had apparently gotten the paperwork through for a business college. If I understood correctly, the initial student body will be comprised of about 130 pupils. What I find exciting about this is that this is the first institution of higher education not found in a city like Patna or Gaya. And once again, the initiative came from a private citizen, not the Bihari government.

On this last note, I've held my silence, though I've certainly hinted at – okay, I've actually come out and acknowledged – the errant corruption in Bihar. At almost every step, there is some form of pay-out to this or that official to get something simple done. It's galling to think that the government functionaries can only see their own gain; with every “gift” (bribe), they rob kids of that much education and perpetuate this culture of grift. I was speaking with a young man today who said that the biggest issue is that people have just gotten used to this form of “business as usual.”

In fact, it was quite eye-opening, talking to him; I knew Bihar was big, but I wasn't aware that it is home to 120,000,000 people. The literacy rate across the state is around 52% and the mortality rate is so high that sixty is considered a long life. I knew things were bad, but hearing it from a young person who just wanted to practice his English and learn more about the states was pretty devastating. He himself would like to go to the U.S., but doesn't see that happening. It's frustrating that a young man this bright is stuck so.

In fact, that's one of the telling things about many of my friends here in Bodhgaya; they're all pretty savvy, know very well the corruption, and yet, really feel like making a change. Mahendra's in his thirties, I think, but Kapil and Dinu (about whom more to follow) are in their mid-twenties. In any event, these guys are college educated, have remained in the area and are working to effect some kind of change.

Additionally, today I hung out in Kapil's and Dinu's villages and met the current guru of the God Ray foundation. I asked him what continues after death and he reminded me of the three gunas and five tattvas that comprise/control the mental stirrings that need to be tamed; in many ways, I think we agreed that what is paramount in gaining and maintaining stability of awareness. He and another guru I met in Varanasi spoke of “soul power”. As far as I can make out, this is a term for atman and its manifestations as/through us and that this can be tapped for further growth and development (and perhaps siddhis, powers of attainment). Be that as it may, I shared with guruji the words of Lama Tharchin Rinpoche from last year, “there's not my mind, not your mind, there's only Mind”. I wish now that I had stuck around for his teaching but I had to get back to town to pay for my ticket(s) for Delhi/Dharamsala.

On this last, when I told Kapil what I had paid I thought he was going hit me! I was about to pay a total of 10,000 rupees (a bit more than $200 US) for a car and plane from Patna to Delhi. Kapil told me that Middle Way Travel (and bookstore, very good collection of books, by the way) overcharges ridiculously. I'd only paid $6,000 rupees and went back and had him cancel the car which shaved off four thousand EXCEPT he said he owed the guy a thousand rupees as compensation. Now whether that's the case or not, I don't know, but I got the feeling that that 1,000 rupees is for him, primarily. The long and the short of it, is that rather than jeopardize anything with my flight, I elected to pay him the thousand just to ensure smooth sailing. Kapil's handling the car. For five hundred. Lesson learned: don't go to Middle Way Travel in Bodhgaya. Unless you want to be hosed.

If, by the way, you do want a terrfic guide and someone who can actually arrange cheap travel for you, do get in touch with Kapil! In addition to working as the secretary for the LBWF, his bread and butter is travel and lodging. He arranged (and I'm sure very much more cheaply) Leigh's departure back to London and helped me find a cheap hotel after the Kalachakra ended (however, when I told Deepak at Heritage I was moving elsewhere, he put me on the phone to Sanjay who said no way and was kind enough to just about match the cheaper hotel's rate...and I got a much nicer room than the one I would have wound up with)! At any rate, it was Kapil's urging that precipitated this and it all worked out quite well.

So my remaining time in Bodhgaya is going to be two weeks over all, but it's going to be quite short. Tomorrow I head for checking in at Dhammabodhi for the ten day Vipassana course and then I'll have one day to hang out before hitting the road to Patna and catching my flight to Dehi. Once in Delhi, I'll have a few hours to chill before heading to the Tibetan Refugee Camp to pick up the overnight bus to Dharamsala. To be sure, I'm looking forward to going back to Dharamsala, but I have to be honest in that I'm really, really going to miss everyone in Bodhgaya (“the maddest town in India” as Leigh wrote me).

So Dinu has gone somewhat under the wire here. Kapil, Mahendra, and Dinu are the LBWF. Dinu is attending university, though currently he's on sabbatical and is also a terrific resource for travel and lodging. Most of all, he's pretty brilliant. Between all these guys, there's no lack of intellectual clout. Leigh, Kapil and I were hanging out at a chai stall one night with Dinu and a friend of theirs who was accompanied with a fellow I took to be Tibetan but found out was Japanese and the next thing Dinu is speaking Japanese. More recently, my jaw dropped when I listened to him hold his own in a Chinese conversation. Well, it is what he's studying, after all. But the key thing is that he doesn't make a big thing out of it.
Dinu, the Great!

I should also add that he's got the cutest niece! She's a little over a year and one more kid I'd love to take back to the states with me. It was also through Dinu that I met Gautam who did the translation honors between guruji and myself. I'll be frank; if you do go to Bodhgaya, do contact Mahendra, Kapil or Dinu. Really. Mostly for supporting the foundation and the school, and certainly for any travel arrangements you might want to make (much better than getting bilked by Middle Way...) and at the very least, if you just want to say hi for me.

I've posted Mahendra's and Kapil's contact information already for the foundation and the school but oddly haven't for Dinu. I'll correct that here:

He has two email addresses: or (he wrote this with a space, but gmail doesn't recognize spaces, so alternatively try,

Also, while hanging out in Kapil's village, I watched the dissolution of the Saravasti shrine I'd seen Saturday. I post pictures here because, sadly, I didn't have my camera with me. I also got my formal initation into being Indian.

Today, I got slapped with green pigment this time, but figured I'd save the photo op for others. The night photos, by the way, are from the top of Kapil's house. I swear, I would love to live in one of these villages.

As Gautam said, it's very peaceful and people are satisfied with very little. He asked me what I thought India needed to do to be stronger and I simply said, invest in the kids, invest in the future, their future. Gautam also said that gatherings like the satsang with guruji were important and I agreed that spirituality is a huge component of Indian culture and life, but part of me really wanted to go all Krishnamurti on him and ask him if the spiritual traditions haven't also been used for keeping people in the same impoverished state. Naturally, I decided against that. I'm not Krishnamurti and I am a guest. But sometimes I question myself on whether spiritual practice is as valuable as hands-on working for education, healthcare, and improving standards of living.

I bridle when I hear rinpoches tell people that building a school or a hospital is valuable, but practicing dharma is more important. Seriously, I could slap some of these guys. So working to ease the misery of the world through providing education, access to healthcare and/or any number of social services isn't dharma? Yeah, the Slap Palace is open for business...

Lastly, here are two shots of the Ganges at dawn (and then my camera's batteries died...pffft.)

Here are some shots off Kapil's rooftop at night. 

But wait, there's more (or...I'm not done yet, not by a damn sight...)
Tibet Om Cafe

For the most part, the restaurants in Bodhgaya are all right. I don't get terribly excited by them, but a lot of the stalls are amazing and in the villages, you may find two or three women frying up samosas for a rupee a piece and I'll telly you what: it's damn good food.

But in Bodhgaya, there is a restaurant that is dear to my heart: The Tibet Om Cafe. The ingredients are actually fresh, the people are friendly and the vibe is just extremely chill. After being out in the hustle (and I do mean “hustle” in all senses of the word) of Bodhgaya, Om Cafe is a wonderful oasis. You can sit inside, which I usually do because it tends to be quieter inside (although on a sunny day, you may find it too dark, but I still like it) and hunker down to some ting-mo, thuk-pa or momos. Man, I've never had ting-mo with peanut butter and honey, but I recommend it for a snack for sure.

There's a lot more to choose from, too.

I can't remember (and I'm too lazy to look) if I mentioned Bona Cafe in Varanasi. While my room at Hare Rama Guesthouse was passable (the toilet seat that kept sliding around because it was only provisionally attached by two double-sided adhesive pads was a sign I should have maybe gone elsewhere), upstairs on the top floor was another oasis. Bona Cafe is a cafe owned and run by, well, Bona, a wonderful, gentle soul from Korea who has created a little bit of heaven atop a mediocre hotel.

The Bona Donkas were phenomenal; basically a kind of large vegetable pancake smothered in an amazing sauce served with rice, side salad and I've drawn a complete blank on what else. The kimchee is awesome and she has a set breakfast to start your day with right. Oh, the salads: yes, they're safe. I think everything is practically cleaned in mineral water and for that matter, I know the ice cubes are mineral water. But more than just the food, she's set up a great ambience with some wonderful music, usually pretty low-key jazz, lots of world beat and some classical. Although she surprised the heck out of me one evening when I came in (for dessert: a warm pudding with fruit! MMMMMMMM!) and listened to the “Pulp Fiction” soundtrack from beginning to end!

Other places of note; in Varanasi, do check out the Brown Bread and for Bodhgaya, while they're pricy, if you do want to eat at a restaurant, head for Saffron at the Hotel Heritage and Fusion. Actually, Saffron's not that pricey, but Fusion definitely is. Sai International is pretty good, too. I like it mostly for the peace and quiet it offers while I'm surfing the web (wi-fi is 30 rupees for the whole day); it's over off to the side of the Kalachakra grounds. If you head toward the Vietnamese temple and bang a right, you'll eventually come to Sai International (just pass Kusum Guesthouse). The food's passable, but it's the people that make it work. In fact, I have to say that for all the rascals, touts and con artists you might run into, there's nothing quite like Indian hospitality.

The beauty of it is meeting people who are genuinely interested in where you're from and they want to know what you think of their land. I've been invited into many a home while I'm here and the conversations have been warm and lovely. Sure, you may get burned by this or that rickshaw driver, you might get hosed by this or that travel agent, but if you can keep your sense of humor about you, these are small prices to pay for the very genuine warmth of the people you'll likely meet who do want to know you.

Oh, yeah, on Indian cuisine: the stalls are great. Trust me on this. Fresh chappati, chaat, samosas, and just about anything you could possibly want, right off the stove or out of the pot. And no, I've not gotten “Delhi belly”. I'm willing to bet that what Viki said a while ago might have an element of truth to it; the roadside joints are constantly in use, constantly being scrubbed down and cleaned. My friends tend to shy away from the restaurants because the kitchens are scary. I've seen two kitchens and I can attest to that. Still doesn't keep me from eating in 'em, but there you have it.

“Yes, but have you drunk the water?” Yep. I have. So far, so good. Though to be sure, I've been pretty cautious. I tend not to drink a lot of it and to not touch the metal glasses water is usually served in. For the most part, I stick to bottled and I have my Lifesaver bottle that has a sophisticated filter system; so sophisticated, in fact, that you could probably use stagnant pond water and it would be okay. I just fill the bottle up with tap water and pretty much use it for water to brush with and the odd sip here and there if I don't have bottled water around.

Oh. And how much is a bottle of water? Average is between 20 and 30 rupees. It's infuriating, though that the average Indian lives on about $1,100 a year. In Bodhgaya, one of my young friends was telling me that a days wage comes to about sixty rupees... a little more than a buck. “We have water, but people can't afford it, we have agriculture but still people starve....” This is what I think about when I sit back and eat a meal or buy a bottle of water...or a Coke (between 30 and 40 rupees). As this same friend of mine said, “you'll appreciate what you have and how great your country is when you go back”.

I really, really hope that there is an “Indian Spring” at some point. This same young man was really interested in hearing about Occupy Wall Street and its spin-offs and I told him that I didn't see why this can't come to India. He said the hardest part is that people are complacent and so acclimated to the way things are that he didn't see much change in the air.

Again, folks, if you're at all interested in making a small dent in the issue, consider helping out a little. Get in touch with Mahendra/Kapil/Dinu or for that matter, check out Seva or any of the other, larger organizations that focus on fighting poverty in third world and developing nations or that work for building schools or bolstering education in these same countries.

I was walking into town and watched a little girl squat and pee in the middle of a cracked earth, garbage strewn area a few meters from the road. What struck me is that it didn't strike me as odd. I'd gotten pretty use to this kind of sight early on; but on reflection, I asked myself “is it right?” I heard a thousand replies to the effect that, “well, she's probably used to it”, “hey, it's not your country/culture”, “oh, look, come on; it's India, for chrissakes”. On further reflection, the question didn't go away and is more emphatic: is it right that a little kid should be used to voiding herself in the midst of filth (garbage, dog feces, cow shit, etc.)?

You start to notice that while everyone's a bit dusty around here (I'm hard pressed to think of a more dust-ridden area; maybe Rajasthan), it could be argued that the better off are the least dusty and the worse off far more so. I'm not sure what to make of this all, but you have to ask “is it right?” I posted earlier about the lepers, the disabled, the poliotic, the beggars, and there's nothing romantic about this, there's nothing here that should be valorized or taken complacently as part of the landscape. It's amazing that the politicians, the civic leaders don't stop in their tracks and start to work as if their collective hair is on fire.

I'm under the impression not many people ask “is it right?”

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