As we’d had company since Varanasi, we’d started to grow confident in our bargaining power for lower cost transport. This small condolence was ripped from us, when in Bodhgaya the fact that we are always at the mercy of our drivers sense of fair play, came back to the forefront of our minds.
Whether I’d always known, or politely chose to ignore the fact that the road between Gaya and Bodhygaya was famed for bandits late at night, is unclear. Naturally we found ourselves an unknown distance from our accommodation, at 2am (late train), with a rickshaw driver refusing to take us the unexpected additional kilometre to our dorm, unless we payed him the extra money he demanded. Even threatening to disembark, calling his bluff with bags in hand, couldn’t shift his will of steel, and we faced either being released into the pitch black town surrounded by dogs, or pay the extra money. He knew as well as we did that there was only ever one choice; and boy did he relish it.
Bodhgaya is synonymous with the origins of Buddhism, but signs reading, “be happy, you are in the land of the Buddha” are contrasted against rifle-wielding men and high walls guarding the semi-monastic retreats. It was slightly strange to say the least, and this was only heightened by the rules of our residence including; no lying, no talking about alcohol and that golden rule – please refrain from killing, even insects… We even instantly and unknowingly broke the rule of no talking in the dining hall. In fact there was no talking anywhere in the grounds for fear of disturbing people’s silent meditation.
That said, the place was very relaxing, safe and boasted the cleanest dorm rooms I’d seen in India; despite the anti-social rules. We passed our time looking at the famous Bodhi Tree, under which the only enlightenment I gained was the knowledge that monks apparently use high tech cameras and iPhones too. There’s nothing like renouncing the material world with a few high definition photographs.
The population of monks at any time was high, peaking at a procession of 500 single-file young monks making their way down the busy main road (pictured above). Not only was there a population of bandits and monks, but also beggars. On the road up to the cave which was said to be the site of Buddha’s failed attempt at ascetism, we were inundated with a stream of tiny, outstretched persistent hands – it took a heart of steel to shut them out. Sam acted as the pied piper, handing out sweets to the children until the situation descended into a chaotic feeding frenzy, that continued until long after the bag of sweets was empty.
I still haven’t found an effective way of managing my response to this kind of poverty and I wish the answer was as simple as giving out boiled sweets. Until then, I will have to become as hardened as the beds in sleeper class.