Friday, September 25, 2015

Crazy $hit that's happened to me in Asia: India edition

Mahabodhi Temple and bodhi tree
I've been busy lately, so here's another old post that dates back to my trip to India in 2010.

I recently read Aravind Adiga's novel, The White Tiger, a fascinating story that exposes the corruption, violence, and struggle in 'The World's Largest Democracy" (India). Throughout the book, the protagonist refers to a place called "The Darkness," often contrasting it to his life in Delhi. But what is The Darkness? Is it a specific place? A place full of poverty? I interpreted it as a reference to the main character's home state of Bihar, one of India's poorest regions that is severely impeded by corruption.

I had the chance to visit Bihar though notably to one of its cheerier, more peaceful parts, a town called Bodhgaya. While this name may have little meaning to you, to Buddhists it's a sort of Mecca. Bodhgaya is the place, nearly 2500 years ago, where Siddhārtha Gautama (Buddha) reached his enlightenment under a bodhi tree next to a temple. A descendant of that tree still exists today and though rebuilt a few times over, so does the temple. Although not a Buddhist myself, living and having traveled through many predominately Buddhist countries, I felt intrigued by Bodhgaya and was determined to make a stop there on my way from Varanasi to Kolkata. My new traveling companion, Katalin, was interested in it too.

After two days of suffering from a variety of ailments that could not be categorized into one or really even two specific illnesses, the time had come to move on from Varanasi. Securing tickets from Varanasi to Gaya, the nearest station to Bodhgaya, had proved tricky. Katalin and I were left with two Sleeper Class tickets, bottom of the barrel as far as Indian railway tickets are concerned. Furthermore, we no longer had Amy and her height along as an intimidation factor, but I was confident we'd be fine. I had, after all, requested for us to be seating in the 'Ladies Carriage.'

As we boarded the train, we realized our seats were nowhere in the vicinity of the Ladies Carriage, if, in fact, there even was one. The passengers in our carriage were overwhelmingly male, most of them with that familiar gleam of curiosity and horniness in their eyes. I had bigger issues than our fellow passengers to worry about, however, as a sensation of nausea rolled over me. I wiped off a dirty, dusty upper bunk and settled in for a nap while Katalin sat on a lower bunk, chatting away to an elderly Austrian woman who had somehow been seated by us.

I had just overcome my urge to vomit and, in turn, drift off into a much needed sleep, when I awoke to a burst of angry shouting. I begrudgingly turned my body towards the source of this noise and looked down to see a large, middle-aged man screaming in Katalin's face. Simultaneously, I felt the need to puke. I crawled down from my bunk and rushed to the toilet. When I returned a pair of brown uniformed, beret-wearing, rifle-toting policemen had come to interrogate the irrationally irate man. He was clearly not cooperating with them and appeared to be intoxicated. The police led him towards the end of our carriage, which happened to be the last car of the train. He was not seen by us again; he very well could have gotten chucked off.

Mahabodhi Temple offerings
Night had fallen and the policemen returned to sit by us. They, in addition to the surrounding men, looked at us in an overtly sexual manner. I was yet to be unnerved by the situation; Katalin was another matter. She had her theories, which I won't delve into here, regarding what these men had in store for us. This drunken incident, the impish looks, the police--it had her shaken up. I refused to be shaken; that was until the train came to a stop at the next station.

It was a small, single platform station that was nearly pitch dark. People were strewn around, gathered by fires of burning garbage. Stray dogs paced among the people. There was hardly a building or man made structure in sight. The Darkness, this was it. I was scared. What was Gaya going to be like? How small, dark, and unwelcoming could it be? And who might follow us there?

I tried to calm myself--my head was spinning in more ways than one. I was sick and frightened; this had turned into the longest train ride of my life and it was merely five hours. Every minute became a bit of a struggle as I tried to avert my eyes from the stares baring down on us while also trying to ignore the churning in my stomach. The policemen left, which alleviated some of the paranoia. Katalin and I tried to distracted ourselves by watching a movie on my iPod. The train was running late. . . by half an hour. . . by an hour. . . finally, at 10:40pm, nearly an hour and a half after our scheduled arrival time, we stopped in Gaya.

To my immense relief, it was a bonafide city. The station consisted of several platforms and was a flurry of activity. When we made it outside of the station, we were happy to see lit streets full of the usual throngs of people, animals, and vehicles--just like any other place we had visited in India. We made our way, neither harassed or followed, to a nearby hotel to check-in. Sometimes the imagination can be a dangerous thing.

at the Taj Mahal, 2010


Autumn said...

You weren't kidding about crazy $hit! That pun had me laughing, although I was kinda worried for you. India's had some very well-publicized gang rapes. :(

Anonymous said...

Holy Jesus Rosie, this is a crazy story!!! I can't believe you traveled around India semi-by-yourself!!! Especially in an all women crew--that just sounds really frightening. I think I would be like Katalin and be very paranoid. I would totally sleep with a knife.

I heard that India is the most difficult place to travel in--the infrastructure is bad, people are not that helpful and it's chaos (although I hear that's also part of the charm).

How was the tree and temple in the end? I would love to go; I read the book Siddartha and I'm very interested in Buddhism. I'm not Buddhist either, but it's one religion I really respect and like a lot. It promotes harmony.

I can't wait to hear about your life in the USA!

rosieinbj said...

Hi Autumn, I think this trip was actually before the press about rapes got out. Because of my own experience in India and the stuff that's been in the news over the past few years, I'm very hesitant to travel in India again unless I have at least one male travel companion. I think the odds of something like that happening are still relatively small if you are careful, but there were other weird and inappropriate things that happened to me there that I would like to avoid if I ever took a second trip.

Mary, it was amazing! I really loved Bodgaya because there are so many different Buddhist temples (one representing the architectural style of every country that has a significant population of Buddhists). It was very interesting! India was amazing in so many ways. I have never traveled somewhere so diverse and I absolutely loved the food. But it was also very hard to cope at times. It is, by far, the most difficult place I've traveled to. And anyone who wants to travel there independently (or even on a tour) should educate themselves a bit beforehand because it can be incredibly overwhelming.