After a crazy week of travel through the stinking heat of north India, I found myself seeking refuge up in Nepal. Though the air was cool in Kathmandu, I quickly found myself choked by the oppressive pollution. I got pretty sick for a few days and didn’t get up to much. Once I had recovered sufficiently, I made a break for a quiet village in the middle of nowhere. I’ve been here in Bandipur for nearly two weeks now, loving every simple day, passing each peacefully.
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My days crossing India from Rishikesh to Bodh Gaya were packed with action. I slept on trains two nights in a row and burned the candle at both ends trying to cover ground. Stopping for a day in Lucknow and wandering around in the hot sun was nice in some ways – enjoying a lot of impressive Mughal architecture – but it was an assault on my body. I had only wanted to stop there because my Grandfather was born in a small Canadian town of the same name. Perhaps a silly reason, but why not? After a full day in the heat, and more than a four-hour delay, I boarded my train around 2 AM and continued east.
I pulled into Varanasi early in the morning and decided I would stay a day. It was a beautiful visit. I found a friendly hostel near the train station and rested a bit before setting out to explore the ancient, fabled city by the holy river Ganges. Learning about the cremation traditions was especially powerful. Hindus from all over India travel to Varanasi to cremate their loved ones by the banks of ‘Mother Ganga’. Not all can be cremated, though. Some are simply put in the river to be cleansed. Children are too innocent for the fires of cremation. This also goes for pregnant women. Others are kept from the fire for the safety of the living. Lepers and those bitten by cobras could spread their illness through the fires of cremation.
After watching an old woman in the funeral pyre gradually reduced to ash (a young man poking her bones with a bamboo pole), I noticed a body bobbing along the banks, apparently slipping free from the rocks intended to keep it below the surface. Nobody seemed to think much of it. As I set out from the area, I was annointed with ashes from the sacred fire which has been burning for 3500 years (and then I was given a small parcel of them to bring home). Before leaving town, I took a sunrise cruise on the river, watching the morning rituals along the ‘Ghats’ of what many consider the spiritual centre of India.
I took a local bus (the only one I could find) to Bodh Gaya. I surely would have sprung for air conditioning had I had the chance but I couldn’t do much about it. The dusty bus ride ended up being more than ten hours of slow moving on flat terrain as we covered a mere 250 KM. I felt a bit tested at times, though knowing I could only embrace the journey. I rose early the next morning and explored the temple grounds where the Buddha became a Buddha. The massive Bodhi tree there is something to behold. Cameras are not permitted on site so all of us there were ‘forced’ to be more present in our shared experience of the immense beauty and serenity. I felt an incredibly potent peace there, resting in meditation for a couple of hours. But the heat picked up and pressed me onward, reminding me why I wanted to head north to Nepal.
I caught a rickshaw to the train station, a train up to Patna, another rickshaw to a bus terminal, where I had a bit of dinner before my bus to the border. That arrived the next morning around 5 AM. I joined some guys from the bus in a horse-drawn cart to the border-crossing where I waited a couple of hours for the customs office to open. I took another rickshaw looking for a bus station, now in Nepal, and ended up hopping in a crammed jeep for passage to Kathmandu. That was another eight hours of bumping around on winding roads climbing higher and higher, wondering how secure some of the soil was beneath us. I had heard talk of recent landslides and couldn’t tell if some of the damage on the road was that recent or perhaps still remnant from the massive earthquake that hit exactly two years earlier. I had entered the country on a somewhat tender anniversary. We made it to the busy city and I was guided by one of my fellow riders to a part of town that had been recommended to me, Boudanath. That was another hour on a few different buses and by the time I arrived and found a room for the night I was ready to collapse.
I looked around the neighborhood the next day and could see why it had been recommended to me. A massive Buddhist temple stood in the centre of the area and many charming shops and restaurants surrounded it. I spent another day there before moving to the very different neighborhood of Thamel. This place was packed with little hotels and guest houses catering to western trekkers. I found a cheap spot and set up shop in a dormitory. I ended up spending more time there than I would have imagined, as I became quite sick, the terrible air quality catching up with me and compounding whatever else I had going on.
I bid farewell to Kathmandu (vowing not to return until they effectively address their air quality troubles) and set out for the quiet little mountain village of Bandipur. After resting for a few days and nursing myself back to reasonable condition, I began enjoying some exploratory hikes through the surrounding countryside. This is a little slice of heaven and I am grateful to have stumbled upon it.
A few days ago was the Buddha’s birthday and I was invited to join my hosts for the annual parade through town. It was quite an event, full of sound and colour. I didn’t have much of a clue about what was going on through most of the day but I carried on with a smile. There were a few monks among us carrying various instruments – drums, horns and cymbals – keeping us in rhythm. Kids and grandparents alike marched along, descending from the temple on the outskirts of town right through the heart of the village before turning around and returning. I had no idea when or where we might stop, so I was kept on my toes, lugging a bound scripture on my right shoulder, which seemed to get heavier as the afternoon progressed. But I was not alone, as most everyone was carrying something. Besides several bound scriptures, we had different kinds of flags, banners, and a small Buddha statue sitting in an open carriage. Villagers would often stop to pay their respects to the tiny Buddha, leaving offerings of snacks or money.
I felt honoured to be the only non-Nepali in the procession and I occasionally caught the curious eye of other travelers watching the parade go by with a tall white guy sticking out in the middle. There were two elders who kept chants going throughout the parade, call and response, and I caught on before long, beginning to fit right in. I was welcomed in to the beautiful Tibetan temple for a feast afterwards, which was accompanied by a short discourse by one of the local teachers. All around us were statues of the Buddha and offerings of rupees, fruit, crackers and even sleeves of digestive biscuits. The Buddha doesn’t discriminate.
Just last Sunday my dear sweet Grandmother turned 99. As it happened, with my family back home at church celebrating her birthday, I came to a ‘life decision’ on the same day. Saying it that way makes it seem like a big deal, when it didn’t feel like that at all. I didn’t even feel like the agent of this decision. I simply noticed it. But I had been considering this particular possibility for some time, and suddenly saw that it was always going to happen. I felt an immediate peace about it, which seemed funny after watching my mind flip-flop over the past few years (and especially the last couple of months).
So, as I return home to Toronto in a few weeks, I’ll be preparing for a return to University in the fall. After a decade mostly out on the open road, I’ll be shelving my wandering shoes (for a time) and digging into a Masters degree in Pastoral Studies at Emmanuel College, focussing on Spiritual Care. It’s a definite change of pace but I’m excited about it. I trust I’ll continue to have many new opportunities to share the simple joy of life through this next chapter. 🙂
So that’s about all for now! I’m heading back out on the road tomorrow, soon returning to India. I will leave you with a selection of photos from my time up here in beautiful Bandipur, “Where Heaven Meets” (this is a somewhat funny ‘catchphrase’ printed on pamphlets, posters and t-shirts around town):