Trivandrum to Goa

I woke up at about 7AM and prepared to be on my way by 7:45AM. My taxi arrived a bit early, but we were loaded and on the road right on time. My driver was telling me his daughter was having her Ritushuddhi, the Hindu equivalent of a Bat Mitzvah, that morning at 9AM. He was a little anxious because there was a strike going on right near the train station so he took me to the back entrance which was largely deserted except for a ticket window, a porter and a couple of men hanging around. The driver enlisted the porter for me, and I didn’t object. But this porter was no spring chicken and needed to ask a rickshaw driver for help picking up my bag after I finished at the ticket window. I was a little concerned for his safety, especially going downstairs. But he made it to the platform and found me a spot to sit and wait. I went to pay him, but he told me to wait until after the train arrived. When it did arrive, he came back, enlisted some help, and brought the bag to the correct coach. As I began to hand him 100INR, he old me 200. I laughed and gave it to him.

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The train was almost empty, except for maintenance workers and police, since this was the originating station. The policewoman on my coach smiled at me as I got on, having just observed my interaction with the porter. She told me the fee for porters is only 50INR. I smiled and shrugged my shoulders as she laughed (at me). I secured my big bag under my bed and made myself comfortable. Not knowing what my food options would be on the train, I bought some food at the vegetarian canteen a little way down the platform.

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There was about a 40 minute wait before we left, but fortunately only a 10 minute wait for them to turn on the A/C. By the time we left there were four military commandos sitting with me. They were all playing with their phones or tablets, laughing and having a good time. They were speaking in what I thought was malayalam, but they were very friendly and appreciated my imitation of one of them posing for a picture. Most of the commandos got off in Cochin, but others sat in their place so I was unable to lie down all day.

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In the late afternoon, about 7 or 8 hours into the ride, a friendly family consisting of an adult woman and her parents (or maybe in-laws) occupied the compartment with me, but they were spending the night with me.

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Over the next several hours I occupied myself with Facebook, Instagram, and my blog. I was able to churn 3 posts out thanks to my preloading Tumblr with pictures when I had wifi in Kovalam.

Around 9PM the family prepared for bed and I could finally do the same. I got my bed made, turned the lights off, and laid down with a movie on my iPad. I made sure to set my alarm for 4:30AM as the train was expected at Canacona station at just after 5AM. I didn’t make it very far into the movie, settling into a deep sleep.

Kovalam Beach

I awoke at about 9AM, got showered, dressed, and headed outside after applying a generous amount of sunblock. I decided to try the German Bakery for breakfast as it came highly recommended. I ordered some coffee, fresh pineapple juice, and a farmer’s omelet platter. The pineapple juice was indeed fresh and featured a rather large piece of pineapple affixed to the glass. The omelet contained potatoes and cheese and completely covered the large plate it was served on. Savoring the breakfast, I enjoyed an amazing view of a vast blue ocean glimmering in the hot sun.

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After breakfast I decided to explore the area, limiting my sun exposure. A boardwalk spanned the whole beach and then continued over to another beach. On that second beach I noticed a rather large crowd gathered around several men pulling in a large net from the water. The crowd grew bigger and bigger. I tried to glimpse what was happening from the boardwalk, but had to brave the crowd to get a closer look. The net was full of fish jumping like mad. It looked like a pretty good catch.

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Soon the crowd dispersed and I made my way up a pretty steep slide, checking out several cute shops and passing a small Hindu temple. I found a shop full of beautiful wood carvings. It smelled wonderful inside, like an exotic forest. I left without purchasing anything which seemed to miff the owner. I headed back down the hill and followed a road to the left dissevering more hotels, small shops, another temple, and a large hill with several hotels along the top, no doubt with an amazing view of the Kovalam sunset.

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The road turned from here and it looked like there wasn’t very much to see up-road, so I turned to the right to a shortcut back to the boardwalk. Walking back slowly I enjoyed the beauty around me, while window shopping.

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I walked up and down the boardwalk to get a complete view of the beach before settling on Swiss Cafe for lunch where I enjoyed a delicious Malabar fish curry with a tasty coconut rice filled with cashews and raisins. The food was amazing, I savored each delectable bite. There’s something so peaceful about eating a delicious meal in front of the ocean, it adds to the flavor of the food.

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With a full tummy I headed back to my room to change for the beach. Renting a lounge chair cost me 100INR, half price, which was what I offered since it was so late in the day. There was still at least one good hour of sun remaining so I soaked in what I could and then took a dip in the water. I was surprised at how warm the water was and soon found myself in fairly deep water with some really nice waves. There were a lot of boogie boarders which I had noticed at lunch. The water was so nice and the waves were fun to ride. I headed back to the beach just as the sun was beginning to set, meeting up with my new friend Bimal, someone I had met earlier in the day. We took a walk to a rocky area on the north side of the beach and talked while we watched the sun set. It was a beautiful sunset, but truth be told, I was hoping for something a little more spectacular.

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Bimal at sunset.

As the sky darkened and the lights along the boardwalk grew brighter, Bimal and I found a restaurant where we got a snack and a couple of drinks. We talked for some time and enjoyed learning about each other. He lived in Trivandrum, but had only just moved there for work. He didn’t really like living there too much, but was hoping it would only be temporary until he could be transferred to Cochin or Bangalore.

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As he needed to get back home, he left around 9PM and I was still hungry. I found a restaurant that I had seen a fresh caught swordfish at earlier. I took a seat and immediately noticed the linens were quite dirty so I moved tables. The linens here weren’t great, but they were better. I ended up ordering the swordfish, cooked in the tandoori oven with a tikka masala sauce. Once again I enjoyed a delicious dinner, listening to an invisible ocean.

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The delicious food and hot sun weighed me down and I thought it would be best to head to my room to pack as I had an early ride to the train in the morning. By the time I was finished packing, I had little trouble getting to bed.

Kolkata to Kovalam

I woke up this morning at 5:30AM after a sound sleep and packed away the rest of my stuff after getting myself showered and dressed. My taxi arrived 10 minutes early so I headed down to the lobby, checked out and loaded my bags in the car as quickly as I could. The taxi that I ordered was metered and I remembered a warning from Deev that some drivers like to take a longer route for tourists that aren’t familiar with the city. I was monitoring our route on Google Maps while we drove, but still he managed to add a few kilometers to the trip. Still, I got to the airport in plenty of time as it wasn’t very busy.

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Inside I was directed to a station where my checked luggage needed to be pre-scanned after I initially tried to wait on the check-in line for IndiGo Airlines. After scanning the luggage I waited in line again only to find out that I had “excessive baggage.” She had no idea! I had to pay 2000 INR (about $30) extra for my excess weight. I was expecting that because I had looked at the baggage policies previously, I just didn’t know how much over I would be. I had to go to a different person to pay my fee and then come back to the first person to collect my boarding pass. I accidentally tried skipping that last step, due to a misunderstanding, but I was sent back by security.

After getting my boarding pass, I went through security which was far easier than TSA security. I found my gate easily and got some coffee and a cheese sandwich. As we waited at the gate I noticed that it was incredibly foggy outside, and sure enough it was soon announced that our flight would be delayed 2 hours.

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An angry mob descended on the gate attendants and there was a lot of yelling in Hindi that lasted a good 15 minutes. Eventually things calmed down until about an hour later when they announced that a flight to Bangalore was boarding. The angry mob once again surrounded the agents with loud voices, but dispersed quicker than the first mob. The airline provided some boxed lunches which were simple, but very nice and unexpected. I couldn’t imagine any airlines in America doing that.

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It was clear that the fog was beginning to lift, and sure enough we began boarding at 10:30AM. The crowd seemed to be much calmer now and boarded the plane in an orderly way.

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We took off pretty quickly and a really nice flight. I fell asleep through half of the flight, but woke up in time to purchase a foul tasting sandwich and orange soda. We began our approach to Chennai shortly after that and having a window seat, I got some really great pictures on the way down.

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Chennai, which was formerly known as Madras, had a really nice, modern airport, though I was somewhat confused about where to catch my connecting flight. I had landed in the domestic terminal and needed to get to the international terminal after retrieving my checked bag. I took a “shuttle” which was essentially a golf cart over to the international terminal along with three women who stuffed themselves in the back. It was quite a distance as they had built a brand new terminal on the far end of the airport. The international terminal was pretty empty and I had to wait 45 minutes before I could even check-in for my flight. There was a snack counter where I was able to purchase a chocolate croissant and a chai tea. They were good, but she microwaved my croissant making it limp and soggy.

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After the short wait, I went back to the check-in counter and went through a very similar process as Kolkata. The excess baggage charge with Air India was slightly less than IndiGo, but again completely expected. After check-in I had to go through immigration because my flight continued from Trivandrum to Sharjah, UAE. The immigration process was quick and went smoothly, and before I knew it I was though security in a long waiting area that spanned the entire terminal. I sat near a group of Russian tourists after getting a bottle of water and a samosa.

This terminal was kind of odd because there seemed to only be two gates on this floor and 4 gates on the first floor. Considering the size of the terminal it seemed wasteful. Also, I didn’t see any airline staff anywhere, and the monitors displayed incomplete and inaccurate flight information. Our scheduled flight time came and went without any change on the monitor and no announcement. About 15 minutes later they announced a gate change for us to the first floor. I immediately headed down to the gate and arrived first. I asked the attendant when we were boarding, but she didn’t even realize that our flight had been moved to that gate. Moments later a warm of people lined up between two ropes next to me and all of a sudden I seemed to go from being there first to last in line. However, I didn’t move, and neither did a family who had been standing with me. We all were just chatting and laughing about the situation. Sooner than we expected, we were ushered to a bus which would take us to the plane. The decor on this plane looked quite a bit more dated than on the IndiGo flight. For a moment I felt I had stepped back in time to a TWA or Eastern Airlines flight. Once we began boarding it wasn’t long before we took off. I spent a good portion of the flight writing in my journal.

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A little more than an hour after take off we began our approach to Trivandrum. It was quite dark outside so I was unable to see anything until we emerged from the clouds to reveal a sparsely lit landscape. Within 15 minutes we were on the ground rolling up to the gate. Upon leaving the baggage claim there was a taxi waiting for me, holding up a card with my name on it. He had been waiting for over an hour because my hotel had never told him that my plane was late, despite my frequent updates to them.

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The ride to Kovalam took about 25 minutes in the nearly pitch black darkness. When we arrived we were on a curvy road that angled downward with several shops to our right lighting up the area. The taxi driver pulled over and told me that I would need to walk the rest of the way to my hotel, which was only a couple hundred meters away. I thanked him, and we traded phone numbers so I could arrange my ride to the train in 2 days.

At the hotel I was greeted outside by a staff member who asked if I was looking for a room. I told him that I was and he showed me upstairs, past the restaurant, to the first room in the third floor hallway. Something felt kind of odd, so I mentioned that I had booked a reservation and he seemed surprised. Looking though his paperwork, he located my reservation and told me to first get settled, and then come down to the restaurant to fill out some paperwork.

My room was adequate, pretty large, but had an empty feel to it, despite a number of furnishings. The double bed looked more comfortable than average, but the sheets looked only moderately clean. Fortunately, I had brought my own linens and a pillow which I had been using at all my stops. There was a glass coffee table against the wall next to the glass sliding doors leading to the balcony. It was just large enough to put my big bag on and open up. Digging through the bag, I started to reorganize so my beach clothes were on top, and figured I’d have to completely repack my bag again anyway. After spending some time reorganizing, I went down to the restaurant and sat with one of the staff members. They brought me a bottle of water and offered some food, but I was planning on going out to eat so I just took the water. Filling out the paperwork took about 30 minutes and then I was free to get some food.

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Having previously looked through the various guides I had access to on my iPhone, I found the restaurant I was looking for, Malabar Cafe and sat down. I had read about a special dish they make where they take a whole fish, marinate it in hot chills, wrap in a banana leaf, and cook in the tandoori oven. I ordered one with a fresh caught Red Snapper. I was so hungry that I devoured that fish excitedly, not even giving myself a chance to photograph the beautiful meal I was enjoying. Though I couldn’t see the ocean, I could hear the sound of the tide as I ate, something very soothing after the last few hectic weeks.

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After dinner I slowly walked back to the hotel, savoring the flavors in my mouth, the smell and sounds of the ocean, and colors of lights up and down the beach. Retiring to my room, I settled in and fell asleep quickly.

Kolkata

It didn’t take long for me to go to sleep as it was nearly 4AM by the time my head hit the pillow and I was exhausted. However, I wasn’t able to sleep much because the train bunks are not terribly comfortable and it got light out pretty quickly. In the morning there were countless vendors that came by offering chai, omelets, bread with potatoes and more in their typically nasal call. I bought a bread and potato snack because I was famished. It was only okay, but I figured it would be a while before I could eat. For the next few hours I nodded off here and there until we got pretty close to Kolkata.

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We arrived at nearly noon almost 5 hours late, cutting into my already limited amount of time in this city. As I was about to exit the train, a porter cambe by and insisted on taking my bag. After initially resisting, I relented and let him take my bag. It was fortunate I so because it was a really long walk to the taxi stand.

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Howrah Station was much larger than any other station I had been to. The porter dropped my bag off at the taxi stand and I got in line to pay for my taxi, a mere 120 INR. The first taxi driver I was given didn’t seem to speak any English and refused to take me. The second one was also speaking only in Hindi, but he seemed to understand where I wanted to go after I repeated it several times. The trip from Howrah Station took us over the famed Howrah Bridge and was a fairly short distance. But the large amount of traffic made it take about 20 minutes.

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We arrived at the hotel and I had to walk through a cafe to get to the lobby which made me even hungrier. I walked up to the counter and checked in to my room. The lobby was quite small, but very modern looking, and the staff were nice, but not in a very genuine way. A porter followed me up to my room, struggling with my heavy bag. The room was nice, certainly nicer than any other room I’d stayed in so far, but gave me the impression that it was only superficially nice. In any case, I felt comfortable there, and that was the reason I splurged on a nicer hotel in the first place.

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After getting situated, showered and freshened up, I went down to the cafe I had first entered to get a quick bite. To my delight they had waffles on the menu, something I had been craving since I left the ashram. The waffles came with apple compote, a scoop of vanilla ice cream, and real maple syrup, and I had a mango, pineapple and lime smoothie with it. I was in absolute heaven!

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After eating lunch I headed out into the streets towards the New Market, a shopping complex just a few blocks away.  Along the way a man started walking with me and telling me how much he loves America, that he was from Gaya, and that he wanted to sell me something to smoke, though I’m a little unsure what exactly.  He also tried to get me to come to his store which was in a different market, but I was on a mission and managed to escape.  But then a friend of his walked up and began to follow and talk to me.  I explained that I was looking for Nahoum’s Bakery, a famous Jewish bakery in the market, which he knew of.  He took me right to it, which was very helpful because it would have taken me much longer to find on my own.</p>fter getting situated, showered and freshened up, I went down to the cafe I had first entered to get a quick bite. To my delight they had waffles on the menu, something I had been craving since I left the ashram. The waffles came with apple compote, a scoop of vanilla ice cream, and real maple syrup, and I had a mango, pineapple and lime smoothie with it. I was in absolute heaven!

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I entered the bakery and spoke to one of the Indians behind the counter explaining that I was looking to visit the synagogues. There are two synagogues in Kolkata that are no longer in use because almost all of the Jews left Kolkata for Israel, but they were preserved by the Nahoum family and available to visit with permission. The Indian man directed me to come behind the counter and speak with an older white man who looked clearly Jewish. I went up to him and told him the same request. He appeared a little surprised, looking at the time and suggested I come back the next day. I realized that it was getting close to sundown on Friday and Shabbat would be beginning soon. I told him that I was leaving early in the morning so he pulled out a sheet of paper with a form printed on it. He filled out the form and signed it and then handed it to me, showing me the address to go to, and I left to get there as quickly as I could.

The guy that had directed me to the bakery was still outside waiting for me and offered to come with, but the sheet of paper gave permission for only one entry. Still he walked me out of the market and a couple blocks away to Sudder Street, a well-known street for tourists, looking for a taxi. We managed to find a driver that understood where I was trying to go, or close to it at least. We agreed on a fare and we were off. He dropped me off on Canning Street in Barabazaar, a mostly Muslim area known for it’s wholesale shopping. The narrow streets were filled with people and line on either side with outdoor vendors and shops. I walked to where Google said the temple would be through alleys that I’m sure white Jewish men rarely visit. Still I never felt uncomfortable and I got many smiles from people along the way. As it turned out Google was off by a couple of blocks, but I located the first synagogue, Maghen David.

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I showed the note to a man at the gate who led me into the compound. The synagogue was undistinctive from the outside except for a small sign out front. We entered through a large wooden door into a small room with a staircase going up. The man handed me a kippah which I placed on my head as he turned on all of the lights. Looking around I was amazed at how clean and well preserved it was, considering that it had been unused for decades. The temple was beautiful, not too ornate, but there were interesting details everywhere. Most fascinating to me was the ark area. The torah was no longer there, but I could imagine a busy Friday night Shabbat service where dozens of eyes watch reverently as the Torah emerges from it’s home. It was Iraqi and Persian Jews that worshipped here for many years until nearly the entire community emigrated to Israel. I turned to my host and asked if he was Jewish, surprised to learn that a Muslim was the caretaker of a Jewish house of God. It seemed interesting and ironic to me, but he showed great respect to this house, and expected that from me. I walked out to the room with the stairs and headed up to the gallery to get a full view of the temple.

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After viewing the whole synagogue, I left the building and my host directed me to a sister synagogue located just a few blocks away called Beth-El Synagogue. With his directions, I found it easily enough and noticed how much more distinctive this synagogue looked from the outside. It seemed odd to see the Jewish symbols and Hebrew writing in this mostly Muslim area, but I never felt unsafe or even anxious, as there was a peaceful energy in the air. At the gate I didn’t see anyone, but I was able to push the gate open and enter the courtyard. I saw two old men, one dressed in a clearly Islamic style, while the other simply wore a dhoti and kurta. Showing them the form, the second one went and fetched the key to the building and unlocked the front door, and lit up the room for me. I asked if he was Muslim which he confirmed as he handed me a taqiyah (the Muslim equivalent of a kippah). I respectfully placed it on my head even though it was apparently pretty dirty and worn out. Seeing the way these Muslim men showed respect for a synagogue, and seeing some similarities in the customs of these two religions really helped me see a side of Islam that I haven’t known since college.

This synagogue looked very similar to Maghen David, though perhaps a bit more ornate. The ark area was decorated a little more lavishly than the rest of the temple. I was particularly struck by some beautiful stained glass, much more extravagant than the first one. After thoroughly documenting the synagogue in photos and in my head I decided to move on in my whirlwind half-day tour of Kolkata. As I left the two old men looked as if they were expecting some money, so I handed one of the 30 INR and noticed a very sour look on his face. I quickly left in case I had accidentally insulted him, not really wanting to wait and find out.

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I walked down the street looking for an empty taxi but couldn’t find one. I was heading to the Victoria Memorial which didn’t really look too far in Google Maps (note to self - Google Maps can be quite deceptive).

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It took me over an hour to get to the memorial after passing by the Governor’s mansion (which was closed) and Shaheed Minar, a monument to a British commander from the early 19th century.

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By the time I got to the Victoria Memorial it was dark out and the memorial was closed. But I met Deev, my Punjabi friend from the train to Rikhiapeeth. Deev had previously offered to show me around Kolkata, an offer I took him up on. After snapping some pictures, we began walking while figuring out a plan for the evening. While we were walking Deev pulled out a small round metal object and handed it to me. It was a Kara, a traditional Sikh bracelet, one of five Articles of Faith that are supposed to be always worn by the devout. He had told me in a text that he had a uniquely Punjabi gift for me, but I was moved by the thoughtfulness of this particular gift.

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Our first stop was at a very small restaurant to grab some momos as a snack. We walked all the way and after my afternoon hike, my legs and feet were really tired. Sitting down to eat felt really good. The momos were not bad, especially with the spicy sauce they had at the table, but still fell short of the momos I had in Bodhgaya. After our snack, we hopped on to the metro, India’s first, known as the bloodline of Kolkata. We went three stops on our way to Kalighat Temple, a very famous temple dedicated to the fierce goddess Kali. Kolkata is well-known for it’s Hindu community’s affinity for the Divine Mother in all her forms. It is home to the largest Durga Puja in India during Navratri. Thousands of idols, called Pandals, are created and displayed each on their own street. At the end of the celebration the Pandals are brought into the river as an offering.

When we left the metro, Deev arranged for a rickshaw to the temple, human drawn. Deev told me that only a couple of states still allow human-drawn rickshaws, and he thought I would enjoy the experience. He was right, though I was slightly nervous about being dropped on my head by our driver who was no spring chicken. But we made it in one piece, and it was quite the experience. Having reached the temple, I first noticed how unassuming it seemed from the outside, except for the very top which was lit up in different colors. Deev warned me that I would be asked for money and that I shouldn’t feel obligated to give them anything. We stopped at a small shop to remove our shoes and be escorted in by a pandit (a Brahmin priest). Inside was equally unassuming, especially in contrast to some other temples I had seen. The pandit led us around with some commentary, most of which Deev had to translate. The prasad we brought in was used with both of us in a couple of places within the temple, including where the main Kali pandal sat which was being actively worshipped by several men inside an alcove. A priest in the alcove pulled me closer, clearly looking for a pay out which I resisted. A second priest used our remaining prasad to bless us and our families, and then asked for some money. I gave a very modest amount which displeased him as he asked, “Is that all?” and then complained to Deev after I walked away. The experience reminded me of something that Jai Uttal said in his workshop which was that if they want something from you then they’re not the real deal. But Deev pointed out that it is also the only way for the priests to make a living. Still, the dishonesty involved tarnishes the feeling of the spiritual intent.

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After we left the temple, Deev asked if I would be interested in seeing a Gurdwara, a Sikh temple, which of course I was. It wasn’t far from Kalighat so we walked there. Inside we had to remove our shoes, wash our hands, and put on a head covering. I remembered I still had a red splotch on my forehead from Kalighat, but continued as I was told. We walked upstairs and entered the prayer room which was very pink and sparsely furnished. We placed a little money in a donation box and bowed down to the floor. To our right there were three men sitting on a platform, chanting. Two of them were playing harmoniums and the third was playing tabla drums. To our left there was a man handing out Karah Prasad, a sweet flour and ghee mixture. It was quite oily feeling and mushed in my hands, but we sat down and began to eat it. A couple of pieces dropped into my lap and I was told that I should eat them, as the prasad is holy and cannot be wasted. We sat there for a while listening to the chanting. I got really into the music and started swaying and moving my head around. Deev stopped me and told me that I shouldn’t move, but instead be still. I found it difficult because I was really into the music, but did as I was asked.

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After leaving the Gurdwara, it was about 7PM and I was beginning to get tired having walked so much and running on only 4 hours of sleep. We decided to head to the New Market, taking the metro there. It took only 15 minutes, but there was a large crowd at the market. Deev explained that Christmas is a busy shopping season. We walked toward the market and stopped for some tea. Deev suggested I try a chinese samosa which is filled with noodles instead of potato. It was really interesting, but paled in comparison to a regular samosa. The tea was very tasty and felt really good on my throat which was sore from all the dust in Bodhgaya. Deev and I continued to walk around for a bit and saw a boy shooting a lit up toy into the sky. Thinking the toy was really cool, I bought a few for my nephews.

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At this point I felt ready to head back to the hotel, as I still had to pack up and get ready for my flight in the morning. As we headed back, we first stopped at a street stand selling Puchka, a very common street food which is known by many names throughout India (Panipuri, Gup Chup and more). It is made primarily with a puffed out spherical puri bread and filled with spiced water (pani in Hindi). Due to the water, most tourists avoid these snacks, but Deev insisted I try both a sweet and savory one. While they were both interesting, I think they’re an acquired taste. Deev was beaming while I ate them, which actually made me a little nervous, like he was hiding something. But he was just excited to see me experience his culture, and I was curious about them ever since I first saw them in Varanasi.

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Our last stop was at Deev’s request, at Baskin Robbins. Deev bought me a combination of Black Currant and Almond ice cream, which was a delicious combination. We sat down a looked at some special coins that he brought for me, each with an important figure in Indian history. I devoured my ice cream while we were looking through the coins, which Deev noticed and remarked about. But he had one last surprise up his sleeve. He presented me with a beautiful ball-point pen, knowing how I had been writing in my journal. I was overwhelmed with his generosity and selflessness and thanked him repeatedly which he scolded me for. He told me he was grateful for the opportunity to share his home and culture with me in the spirit of selfless giving. Unknowingly, my thank you’s were undermining the selfless nature of his gifts, which was not my intent. Still, he knew that I was sincerely grateful and appreciative of everything, so I abided and refrained from thanking him more.

We got back to the hotel close to 9PM and I was absolutely exhausted, but buzzed from such a great evening. We said our goodbyes, hugged, and walked in opposite directions. I wasn’t hungry and ended up skipping dinner since I had snacked along the way, so I went straight up to pack and get to bed.

Bodhgaya Day 2

I ended up getting to bed quite late the previous night, but I still woke up on the early side, around 8AM.  Not wanting to waste any time, I showered and dressed and headed up to the Be Happy Cafe for breakfast by 9:30.  Since I was somewhat disappointed with yesterday’s breakfast, I ordered oatmeal porridge with the works which included milk, honey, bananas, and pomegranate seeds, toast, and a cafe latte.  This breakfast was significantly better than the last.  I spent some time at the cafe blogging and drinking lattes.  Eventually RIccardo came in and joined me, figuring he’d give the coffee a try.  I didn’t stay long because I needed to checkout of the hotel by noon, so I told Riccardo that I’d text him later and left.

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When I got back to the hotel there was a bus full of Indian tourists that had just arrived and they were making a big commotion in the hallways.  I went into my room and finished packing my bags, bringing them downstairs to store for the day, though I did bring my backpack with some warm clothes for later.

My first planned stop was the Thai Temple, but it was closed when I got there and wouldn’t reopen for nearly an hour.  I started walking around looking at the tables and booths of the street vendors.  I came across a Tibetan man selling the most beautiful wool blankets/shawls.  There was one in particular that caught my eye but it was pretty expensive and he didn’t want to take what I offered him, so I moved on.  A few minutes later I found a nice shoulder bag that I really liked and he was willing to take only 200 INR for it which is about $3.  I walked further looking at many of the vendors along the way up to the Mahabodhi Temple, and then at the top of the street I turned into the Tibetan quarter where I found some wonderful gifts, but no one else sold blankets like the one I saw earlier.  I headed back down toward the Thai Temple and approached the Tibetan man with a slightly higher offer which he took.  Having found everything I was looking for I was able to now get into the Thai Temple which was a glorious masterpiece, or perhaps a showpiece.  The grounds were largely inaccessible, but inside the temple it was magnificent.  Every wall was painted in spectacular colors depicted various scenes with Buddha.  There was a large gold Buddha statue front and center and amazing details all over the room.  Even the outside of the temple was incredible with two large statues covered with little mirrors.

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From there I went back to the Kagyu Tibetan Temple to get a look inside, but this one wasn’t yet open from lunch.  I quickly went back and took a peek at the giant Buddha statue and when I got back to the temple it was open.  The grounds of this temple were much more open and accessible, though there were many police scattered around.  The architecture and design inside was beautiful.

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The next temple I visited was the Bhutanese temple which from the outside is commanding and the inside is so intricate and detailed.  It’s hard to convey the beauty, even in words and pictures, because they don’t really do these temples justice in comparison to being there.

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Beginning to get a little hungry, I started to make my way back up to my favorite restaurant, Mohammad’s and got some momos and lassi.  I ate quickly while playing on my iPad and once again followed that up with coffee at Be Happy.  Thinking I’d stop in the park and work on the blog for a while, I left the cafe and made a quick stop at the Vietnamese Temple which was nearby.  This temple was much less of a showpiece than the Thai temple.  Simple and zen-like in it’s design, a true monument to Buddha, with a statue that you could approach, unlike in most of the temples, and a peaceful garden outside.  Unfortunately, they were about to close so I couldn’t spend very much time there.

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On the way back to the park I began looking at some of the vendor tables.  A young teenager approached me and started talking to me in the same way that most of the people on the street did, but something about him was different.  I was doing my best to ignore him or blow him off, but he continued to follow me around.  We approached the Nyingpa Tibetan temple and I decided to go inside.  I was a little apprehensive about leaving my sandals outside for fear that he might try to steal them, not knowing his intentions.  But when I returned, he was waiting outside and my sandals were where I left them.

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We continued walking towards the park, but I decided to pass the park and stop at the Chinese Temple first.  The temple was quite impressive on the outside, and relatively simple on the inside.  There were beautifully painted murals on the two side walls and three gold Buddha statues directly ahead, but behind glass.

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I didn’t stay long because the kid, whose name turned out to be Jitesh, warned me that the park was closing soon.  I left the temple and he was waiting outside and a few other kids had come up to talk to him. I headed up to the park and Jitesh once again followed me, but it was closed.  He suggested we head down to the giant Buddha statue, and since I had nothing left to see I agreed.  As we approached near my hotel, which was on the way, we noticed that the Japanese Temple had a bell ringing, indicated the start of a daily 5PM meditation.  We headed inside the temple grounds, at my suggestion, and I removed my sandals outside.  Jitesh was just standing there, so I asked if he wanted to come inside and meditate with me.  He joined me inside where a monk could be heard chanting in what I assume is Japanese and the two of us found a spot to sit down.  I engaged in a combination of kriyas and meditation, and by the end I felt great.  At one point a man tapped me on my shoulder and offered some insect repellant because there were mosquitos out.

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After the meditation was over, Jitesh and I left and I sent a text to Riccardo about dinner.  I told Jitesh that I was planning on meeting him for dinner and began walking back towards the Tibetan quarter.  Jitesh and I talked more as we walked, telling me how his dad worked in Patna and hadn’t been able to send money to his mother for food for Jitesh and his sister.  Though I can’t be certain he was telling me the truth, I wanted to believe him because he seemed sincere, and truth be told his presence had grown on me.  I invited him along for dinner and he accepted.  I even offered to allow him to order extra to bring home to his mother, but he said that she wouldn’t eat restaurant food, only what she could make herself.

On the way up to the restaurant we ran into the two boys from my first night in Bodhgaya.  They began walking with us and asked if I would come to the orphanage that they had previously spoken about.  They told me it was close, and though I remained skeptical, I decided to give them the benefit of the doubt.  To me it felt like a lesson in faith, and I was willing to trust my heart and ignore my head.  It was quite dark at this point and we seemed to be walking into an even darker area off the beaten path which made me feel a little anxious.  Still, I continued the leap of faith and followed along which shortly led us to a door with a white and red sign that had the name Elizabeth Orphanage, a Christian organization.  One of the two boys, Priye, knocked on the door and spoke to a girl who was on the other side.  They spoke for a while, in Hindi, before she finally opened the door to let us in.  We entered into what appeared to be an outdoor foyer with a tarp for a roof.  Several children were around and they seemed quite happy and excited to see me.  I was led into a small room that doubled as a classroom and a sleeping area for the boys.  There was only one bed in the whole facility which was only four rooms, a bathroom, kitchen area, rooftop, and the outdoor foyer.  The bed belonged to the pastor that ran the facility.  All of the kids, about 20-25 of them, piled into the classroom and one by one each child introduced themselves to me, shaking my hand and asking for my name.  They were all so polite and charming, each of them had smiles that belied the tragedy of their circumstances.  Their joy was infectious.  They were led in a number of English and Hindi songs by a man who I was told was their Hindi teacher.  

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I was asked if I had any questions and told that they would be interested in learning something about my life, and my country.  They were shy at first, but soon they were asking a few questions.  I wasn’t sure exactly what to talk about, but they seemed excited just to have me there with them.  We took some pictures together and thanked each other for spending the time.

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Priye, Jitesh, the other boy, Amar, and I sat down outside on some chairs, followed by the Hindi teacher.  They told me about what they were trying to do and showed me a guestbook that had thousands of entries by people from all over the world.  Obviously they were looking for some money, and I was all too happy to help seeing the conditions that these children had to live with.  But I was determined to do more than just give a little bit of my own money.  I promised to try to raise more money for them when I returned home, and intend to follow through with that.  In India there are so many people that have little to nothing, and these children are among those with the least, though even they are lucky enough to be in this orphanage instead of out on the street.  I knew a little money would go a long way to provide beds, clothes, food, and needed repairs, and I knew that I could help.  I thanked them all for bringing me and the three boys and I left.

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Outside I asked Priye and Amar if they wanted to join us for dinner and we set out to meet Riccardo, who had texted me to meet at the Tibet Om Cafe just a few minutes earlier.  The five of us enjoyed a very nice meal together, consisting of mostly momos and soup, as well as conversation.  While the food was delicious, it wasn’t as good as Mohammads.

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After dinner we walked Riccardo back towards his guest house, but he stopped at Mohammad’s for some coffee and wifi, so we said our goodbyes and promised to keep in touch.  Priye, Amar, and Jitesh led me back to my hotel via a shortcut and soon we were standing in front of my hotel when Umesh drove up on his motorcycle.  I said goodbye to the boys and coyly slipped Jitesh some money for his family.  I retrieved my bags and was quickly whisked away in the taxi towards Gaya station.

It was quite dark out on the road to Gaya, but we made good time because there wasn’t much traffic on the road, comparatively, at this hour.  Unfortunately, we made too good time, as I knew I was in for a wait, even if my train was on time.  We arrived at about 9:45PM for an 11PM train.  I paid the driver and headed into the station, lugging my heavy bags, looking for a place to sit down and wait.

There was a large waiting room that was full of people, not like the rooms I was used to in other stations, but I found a spot on the platform where I could set my bag down and use it as a seat.  Unfortunately, from this vantage point I couldn’t see the monitors displaying the timetables or hear the announcements.  I knew that my train was running about an hour late from a website that I found on my phone.  After about an hour, as the train grew even later, I relocated to an area where I could see the monitors and hear the announcements.  I found a spot on a square bench wrapped around a pillar and put my stuff down to wait.  Once comfortable I pulled out my journal and began writing.  Before long I had a small audience around me curiously watching as I wrote in the journal.  The woman next to me would laugh whenever I caught her peeking.  A few people tried to speak with me, mostly in Hindi, but I could barely converse with them because their English was very limited.

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As time went on my train, and in fact most of the trains, seemed to grow later and later due to the fog that is fairly common in this area this time of year.  Some of the people who had been watching me write departed on their trains, and other curious people replaced them.  Finally, at nearly 3AM, about 4 hours after my train was due to leave I moved to Platform 3 where the train was expected to arrive soon.  A portly man and an older porter confirmed that I was in the right place, and after about 30 minutes the train arrived.

I easily found the correct coach, and my bed, secured my luggage, made the bed, visited the restroom, and settled in to sleep.  A very pleasant ending to a very long night.

Bodhgaya Day 1

I woke up for my first day in Bodhgaya around 8:30AM and spent a good part of the morning struggling once more with the internet at my hotel.  After about an hour of this I gave up, got showered and dressed and headed out to get some breakfast.  I had noticed a selection of breakfast items the previous night at Be Happy Cafe, and decided to give that a try, but also so I could drink their coffee and use their wifi.  The walk up there was nice, but it was a little chilly out and I wasn’t dressed warm enough.  On the way I passed by dozens of street vendors, all the same from the previous night and more.  As many vendors as I saw, I think there were more rickshaw drivers, and they were very aggressive.  There’s only a short 4 month season in Bodhgaya, so the residents need to make the most of it.  This year was quieter than usual due to a bombing this past June in the Mahabodhi Temple grounds, scaring away many tourists and pilgrims.  Even so, I was struck by the number of tourists, and non-Indians as compared to other areas of India.  Bodhgaya is a multi-cultural center in India, and that was well reflected during my visit.

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I reached the cafe and ordered the “special” breakfast which was simply eggs, toast, jam, and potatoes) along with a latte.  I had brought my iPad and journal so I could use their wifi to post to my blog.  I ended up staying there for close to 2 hours, drinking 3 lattes before their internet stopped working.  ”It does that” said the owner, a white Canadian woman around my age.

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Having the urge to explore I headed back to the hotel to drop off my stuff before heading to the Mahabodhi Temple.  On the way I saw a large park and decided to check it out, paying the 2 INR (Indian Rupee) fee.  The park was beautiful and had all sorts of interesting things to see, including a view of the top of the Mahabodhi Temple.  I walked around the whole park, snapping tons of pictures when I was approached by a park attendant.  He stopped me and motioned to put the camera away, presumably speaking in Hindi.  He pointed to his head and said, “No Mind”.   I put the camera in my bag, figuring that he was trying to tell me that I had missed the point of this serene environment.   Though I now understood his point, I still took a few more pictures slyly as I sat on a bench absorbing my surroundings.  I’ve never been very good at sitting still, but this park was so calming that I succumbed for a short time.  Had I been a little more patient I might have spent more time there, but I left the park and continued back towards the hotel, getting diverted once again in my quest by a desire to see the 80 foot Buddha statue.  Unfortunately, the park where the statue was located was closed for lunch, as many of the temples did as well, but I was able to get a peek from a distance.

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On my way back from the Buddha statue I noticed a large crowd gathered outside of the Tibetan Kagyu Temple.  The Kagyu Karmapa was in town to lead meditations and a massive crowd was piled inside the gates, filling the courtyard in front of the temple.  The low drone of Buddhist chanting was heavily amplified throughout the grounds and into the street.  Wanting to spend the afternoon at the Mahabodhi Temple, I left and headed to the hotel.

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After dropping off my stuff, I rode a bicycle rickshaw back up to the Mahabodhi Temple which was about 1km or so up a hill.  I left my sandals at the shoe drop, bought a ticket to bring my camera inside and headed in.  There was a path that headed to the temple grounds which had several people headed inside, and a large bull relaxing in the shade.

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Once in the grounds, I took a lap around the entire temple on the upper level which was lined with prayer wheels, to get the lay of the land.  I spotted an enormous number of stupas, any quite old, scattered across the site with an occasional sign pointing out the significance of one or another.  There were also an enormous number of saffron-robed meditators, some doing ritual prostrations.

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I headed back towards the entrance area and walked down the stairs.  Upon entering the inner temple grounds I saw so many incredible sights.  There were marvelous sculptures made of flour, incredible carvings on the exterior wall of the temple, and a variety of decorations, flowers, and embellishments in myriad shades of yellow and orange.  I was about to take a picture of one of the wall carvings when a young man in saffron robes tugged at my elbow and motioned me to sit and talk.  I didn’t see any reason not to, so I went ahead and sat with him.  He asked me some of the usual questions and told me a little bit about himself, how his school was having some financial difficulty, and that he was looking to purchase a large bag of rice.  After our conversation, I gave him a little bit of money, remembering in the back of my head Umesh’s warning.  But this kid was dressed like a monk, and whether he was one or not, I took him at his word, regardless of whether I was right or wrong.  I continued walking around the temple and past the Bodhi tree where Buddha sat and attained enlightenment nearly 3 millennia ago.

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Turning the corner, the same young man, whose name happened to be Buddha, came up to me again, and started to explain the significance of what was around me.  He said I was standing on the very spot where Buddha sat for several days staring at the Bodhi tree after becoming realized.  He continued to walk around the temple with me offering more and more information and then asked if I wanted to pray together.  At this point I was still somewhat skeptical, but I gave him the benefit of the doubt.  We found a quiet area and sat on one of the many blankets laid out around the temple for worshippers.  He recited a prayer in Sanskrit, one word at a time, asking me to repeat each word after him.  I did as well as I could, but had trouble with some of the words.  He told me that he said a prayer for me and my family, our past, present and future.  Regardless of my skepticism, I felt very appreciative, and headed back down to the temple with him, continuing to walk around it.  At the Bodhi tree he pointed out a gold-colored stone in the wall around the tree that had bits of gold leaf affixed to it.  He told me to place my head against the stone to absorb it’s energy, which I did.  He asked me for my camera and took a picture of my head which had a small bit of gold leaf stuck to it, which is very lucky.  We continued walking until we reached the front of the temple where we took a picture together and exchanged contact information.  I gave him a little more money before we parted ways since he had taken the time to show me around and offer a prayer for me and my family.  Afterwards, I went back to the Bodhi tree enclosure and sat down on one of the meditation mats laid out around the tree.  It was difficult to focus because there was someone chanting over the loudspeakers in a deep, resonant voice.  So instead of meditating, I practiced some of the kriyas I had learned at the ashram.  It might have looked silly to the Buddhist pilgrims, but I found the practice very energizing.

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After about 45 minutes or so I decided to enter the inner sanctum of the temple where cameras were not allowed.  I had to wait on a very long line with some very pushy people in order to get inside where I found a highly bejeweled Buddha statue.  I was able to snap a picture of the statue from outside, but because the statue is behind glass there was some glare.  After several more pictures of the monument, I left the temple, retrieving my sandals from the shoe drop.

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I was pretty hungry after leaving the temple and the sun was beginning to set.  I decided to get a quick snack of aloo pakoras from Mohammad’s before heading down to the big Buddha statue again.  I thought I could time it so the setting sun would be just behind the statue which is eastward facing.  The pakoras were delicious once again, but they took longer to get than I had hoped.  I decided to take a bicycle rickshaw down to the statue to improve my odds of getting a good shot with the sun.  I missed the shot, but ended up with some great photos.  The statue was magnificent, rising high above the tree-line with a commanding look.  It appeared to be in a Japanese or Thai style.  Around the statue were several smaller ones depicting Buddha in a variety of hand mudras.

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After visiting the statue I stopped off at the hotel for a while to work on my blog.  I again struggled with the internet, and when I got hungry enough I made way up back to Mohammad’s for dinner.   I had limited time because I was scheduled to meet Umesh at 7PM back at the hotel to talk about a tour.  I got to the restaurant at 6PM feeling that it was unlikely I’d get back on time.  I sat inside to avoid the mosquitos I experienced the previous night.  Tonight I wanted to try the Thentuk soup, and I ordered Aloo Gobi (Potatoes and Cauliflower in a masala) along with some naan bread.  Shortly after I ordered, a man in his late 20s/early 30s sat diagonally across from me at my table.  He asked what I had ordered when my soup came and began a conversation.  His name was Riccardo and he was from Turino, Italy on vacation and traveling around for 3 months.  He had spent the previous month in Varanasi and expressed how difficult that was, and how sick that made him.  I had no doubt about that.  As it was getting close to 7 I excused myself to grab some coffee at Be Happy Cafe and suggested that Riccardo check them out too.  We traded contact information with the hope of meeting up the next day.

I headed over to Be Happy, unable to resist a nice cappuccino and a slice of carrot cake.  Unfortunately, they forgot about my cappuccino until after I finished the cake and had to remind them.  I ended up arriving back at the hotel about 15 minutes late for my meeting.  As it turned out, Umesh had seen me get into a rickshaw to book it down to the hotel, calling my name but I didn’t notice.  At the hotel we discussed some tour options, towns on the “Buddhist Circuit”.  One of the spots was about 100km away and the other was about half that distance and included a cave where Buddha spent 30 days, and a town where he lived and taught for 6 years.  The trip was to last all day and include my ride to the train station, but Umesh wanted to charge me 11,000 INR.  That was much more than I wanted to spend, and I felt there was still so much to see in Bodhgaya so I declined.  I agreed to get a ride back to the station, even though I knew he was overcharging me.  Umesh left after we finalized the agreement and I headed upstairs to work on my blog and go to bed.

Rikhiapeeth to Bodhgaya

After packing my bags once again, I got to bed around 10:30pm, a little later than I had hoped because I got back up at 2:15AM to finish getting ready and pack the last of my things.  My ride showed up a bit early, around 3AM and we were on the road well before 3:30AM in time to catch my train an hour later.

We arrived at the station in plenty of time.  In fact, my train was 20 minutes late, so I had no worries.  When it arrived I made my way to the correct platform but accidentally got on the wrong coach.  For some reason I thought I had a seat on the 2AC coach, but I was actually on the 3AC coach.  Unfortunately and much to my embarrassment, my mistake awoke a sleeping couple when I tried to take over the extra bed they had covered with their stuff.  I soon found the correct compartment and settled myself into my bed.  Lying in this compartment, I was concerned for my luggage and only nodded off for about an hour.

By 9AM I had gotten just a little sleep, but the girl in the bunk above me was gone so I could put the bunk down and sit up like the two girls across from me had done about an hour earlier.  For the first time I was able to actually look out the window while we moved along toward Patna, the capital of the state of Bihar.  I spent the morning chatting with my friend Yossi in New York City which was really nice because I needed to connect with that reality a little bit after the ashram.  We arrived in Patna sometime after 10AM which was perfect since it was getting late in NYC by that point.

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At the platform, I stepped off the train with my luggage and found a chair to sit on while I wait for my next train.  I didn’t know which platform I needed to be on yet, so I figured I might as well stay put until I heard an announcement.  Sitting there I drew quite a bit of attention, many friendly looks, and some off-putting ones too.  I didn’t have to wait long though, because about 40 minutes later, my train arrived on Platform 10, which was a bit of a walk through the overpass as I was on Platform 2.  Walking to the platform was difficult holding my heavy bag in one hand, my backpack on my shoulders and the bag I got with my prasad in my other hand.  I walked down to the platform and looked for my coach which required me to walk almost the entire length of the train.  Eventually I found my car and took my seat storing my big bag in the overhead storage.  This car was a bit different because it was for day travel and had rows of seats like an airplane instead of beds.  A large family sat across the aisle from me and the grandfather took the seat next to mine.  As we waited for the train to depart, two young men stood over the grandfather and I looking at my iPhone watching as I put my passport away after showing it to the conductor.  I’ve found it difficult in India to tell when people are sincerely curious about me or looking to rip me off.  I was a little unsure about these two guys because they seemed so fascinated by me and they were acting a little odd.  But Indian’s don’t seem to have the same sense of personal space that westerners do.  Still, the two seemed to be ok and we chatted for a while as the train departed until they were told to take their seats.  When we arrived in Gaya, the two guys also got off, and were helpful in getting me a porter and guiding me in the right direction, wishing me a pleasant trip.

Outside of the station was total chaos, something I was expecting as I was forewarned that Gaya is very different than Bodhgaya.  I was expecting a driver that was arranged for me by Raj, my guide in Varanasi.  Umesh arrived late, but he wasn’t alone, there was another man driving the car, which was actually a small SUV with a small Buddha statuette on the dashboard.  After loading my bags, we took off for Bodhgaya through the noisy and crowded streets of Gaya Junction, and past the bustling markets of Gaya City.

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Before long we had left Gaya proper and entered a forested area that was much quieter, less busy, and more peaceful.  I felt a very distinct shift in the energy and noticed how beautiful this area was.

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As we approached Bodhgaya the energy became a little more intense as the streets were busier, but still more peaceful than Gaya, Varanasi, Agra or Delhi.  While I’d hesitate to call Bodhgaya clean, it was far cleaner than the other cities I’d seen, albeit terribly dusty.  It was also the first place outside of the ashram where I didn’t feel like I was in a fish bowl being observed by everyone I encountered.  There were many tourists here, as well as pilgrims from all over the world.  The population included westerners, Indians, Tibetans, Japanese, Chinese, Thai, and many other cultures where Buddhism plays an important role.

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We arrived at my hotel and Umesh quickly spoke with the staff there which sped up the check-in process.  We agreed to meet the following day to discuss tour possibilities, and then he was off.  One of the hotel staff took my big bag and led me to my room which was not luxurious, but certainly adequate and comfortable.  I got settled and relaxed for a bit, struggling with the terrible wifi in my room.  After some time in great frustration, I decided I had enough and ventured out to get something to eat.

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I left the hotel and headed to the Tibetan Quarter where most of the better restaurants are, near the Mahabodhi Temple.  Along the way I saw several temples, monasteries, monks in saffron robes, tourists snapping pictures, and Indians and Tibetans selling baubles of all sorts.  I found my way to where the restaurants were and recognized some of the names from the Rough Guide and Trip Advisor.  I made my way to Be Happy Cafe, where I was told at the ashram I’d find the best cup of coffee in Bodhgaya.  The place was quite small, but clean and cute.  I was greeted by three Indians inside and seated at a table.  There were two other tables occupied by other tourists.  The menu was very simple comprised of standard American breakfasts, Italian pasta dishes, pizza, coffee and several delicious sounding desserts.  I ended up ordering a latte and a slice of carrot cake.  The cake came out first and I slid the fork gently into the end lifting a moist piece of cake with loads of fresh carrot embedded in a soft brown cake with smooth white icing delicately spread on top.  The cake entered my mouth and I almost reached enlightenment.  Now keep in mind, this was the first taste of food outside of the ashram, but it was by far the best piece of carrot cake I’ve ever had.  The coffee came as I had devoured about half the cake, served in a clear cup with a generous amount of frothy foam on top.  The coffee was every bit as delicious as the cake, and best part is the two together cost me less than $3, worth every penny.

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Having had dessert, it was now time to find some dinner (this order occurred pretty regularly on the ashram).  I located another name I recognized from the guides as a “must try” place, Mohammad’s Restaurant.  I sat outside and pored through a rather large menu comprised of multi-national cuisines.  Their Tibetan selection was pretty substantial and I was anxious to try that.  I ordered a Thukpa soup, vegetable momos (dumplings), aloo pakora (fried potato), mango lassi, and a bottle of water.  I noticed that the restaurant was very tourist friendly, using filtered water for everything instead of tap water.  There was a clear sense of attention to hygiene and cleanliness, which is not always so common in India.

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The soup came out first and it was huge.  The broth was a beautiful dark yellow and there were piles of what looked like bok choy, carrot, and spaghetti-like noodles.  It had a strong cabbage flavor which I enjoyed, almost like a soup made out of egg roll.

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Next up was the aloo pakora, a traditional Indian dish, but one I hadn’t tried before with potatoes.  The were like mini-knishes, very filling but tasty.  There were 6 large pakoras on the plate and I only managed to eat half of them.

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Finally the momos came and once again I tasted heaven.  The filling was similar to the contents of the soup and the dumpling was thick, delicate, and flavorful.

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The dinner was one of the best I’ve had in a long time, and by far the best in India so far.  I ended up with 3 pakoras and a momo left over which I was able to give to a woman and her children on my way home.  Walking back to the hotel I saw several vendors selling jewelry, malas (religious beads), bags, scarves, shawls, key chains, and countless other souvenirs, crafts, and spiritual implements.  During my walk I was approached by two teenage boys who spoke in almost perfect English.  The were telling me a story that they worked with an orphanage teaching children, and that they could show me around to earn a little extra money.  I wasn’t really buying their story as Umesh had warned me about talking to locals.  They will try to earn your trust and then somehow liberate some of your cash and valuables.  I had a firm grip on the bag that held my money and camera, but played along for a while.  They asked me to come to tea, which Umesh warned me was one of the tricks, but I refused and continued to the hotel.

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Ending the night in my hotel room, I spent quite a while writing in my journal, and too much time futzing with the crappy internet until my frustration and exhaustion overtook my determination.

Rikhiapeeth Days 7-9

Finally I had an alarm to get me up thanks to my recovering my iPad from the safe deposit box.  I got up at 4:40AM and got read for class.  My stomach still was not at 100%, but I was feeling considerably better by this point.  In class we learned only one new kriya, and it resembled the last few kriyas we learned considerably.  I was still struggling to sense the difference between these kriyas, and had come to the conclusion that it was unlikely I’d figure it out in the next couple of days.  We also did a Tattwa Shuddhi session, of which I recorded the audio, but I’m  unable to post it until I have access to a computer.

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After class we went to breakfast, again in Akhara, and again fairly meager, though I didn’t mind so much because I wanted to eat very mild foods at this point.  After eating I walked outside and was talking with another classmate, Tanja.  I told her about my stomach woes and she offered some activated charcoal, which she said would definitely help.  I was willing to try almost anything, with the possible exception of Iris’ suggestion of a local stomach remedy made from goat urine.  The charcoal seemed to really help and I was fine throughout the morning into the early afternoon without the need to take anything else.

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River and Tanja

We headed down to the yajna after breakfast and was treated to another dance by the same group of girls as before.  Each morning the two swamis would take turns making a speech with one swami speaking in Hindi and the other in English.  Though the topics were similar, I was told that the speeches were different.  This morning Swami Niranjan spoke in English eloquently on what is the point of yoga.  That yoga is not simply a couple dozen asanas (postures) and a couple of pranayam (breath-work).  That yoga is about living in unity, feeling a connectedness.  I really connected to what he was saying, but after so many days spending endless hours sitting, my butt was so uncomfortable, I found it difficult to focus.  We sat there for 3 hours before heading to lunch.  And then back for another couple of hours.  Back to Akhara for class, back to Patanjali for more yajna and dinner.  Tonight we were treated to the first half of a movie about Swami Satyananda, which was actually really interesting.  As his school has very little presence in the United States, I knew very little about him.  He was a very spiritually devoted man that undertook some incredible sadhanas (spiritual practices), some over many years with great personal sacrifices.

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Swami Niranjan and Swami Satsangi

The next morning I woke up at the same time, but noticed a very distinctive chill in the air, far worse than there had been up to that point.  After getting ready and heading downstairs I noticed a significant amount of fog in addition to the chill in the air.  I walked to Akhara with a couple of others, which felt like walking through a steam room without the heat.

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Our classes were becoming more and more disappointing as we did a lot of review, but didn’t learn much that was new, and each kriya resembled each of the previous ones to such a degree that I wondered what was the point.  Out of 20 regularly taught kriyas, it seemed we’d be lucky to hit 10.  Still, regardless of my feelings I made the best of the situation and dug in my heels with the practice.

Breakfast was also disappointing, but since we had come to expect that, we were okay with it.  Still, Deepak and I never wasted an opportunity to make great fun of that fact.  This morning I had a severe craving for waffles with maple syrup, which would have been very welcome on such a cold morning instead of dry puffed rice and chai.  After breakfast, we headed down to the yajna where our group were each given one of the scarves that I had helped to fold.  Afterwards we posed for a picture with Swami Niranjan and Swami Satsangi, though I’m still waiting for a copy. Swami Satsangi addressed the crowd suggesting that Shiva had come down from Mount Kailash, bringing the cold temparature and fog with him.

Sitting for 3 hours at the yajna was becoming increasingly difficult, which was not aided by the fact that the program each day was the same.  Still, I’m sure I would have been able to appreciate it much more if I wasn’t so uncomfortable.  In some ways, this is the exact point of ashram life, to overcome discomfort and suffering by training the mind and body through service, through practice, and through devotion.  The discomfort and mediocre food teach you to be thankful, humble, and to focus on what’s really important in life.  Still, after lunch I sat on the chairs with the older people.  Dimitris and Kalliope had obviously been feeling similarly because they were already there.  The chairs weren’t that much more comfortable as they were simply metal folding chairs.  I left after an hour and headed back to my room after buying a bottle of water and a small chocolate bar from a corner shop that most us frequented (though technically it was against the rules).  I was able to work on my journal for nearly an hour before heading back to Akhara with Deepak and Anand.

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Tarun, Deepak, Anuradha, and Anand walking back.

The afternoon class went a little better than some of the previous ones.  We learned our last kriya, which brought our total to 9.  This kriya was somewhat different from the previous ones, but because it required that we lift our bodies off the floor 3 times, it didn’t feel so great on my butt which was already sore from sitting.

The rest of the evening went much like the previous day with the second part of the movie shown after dinner.  The food at the ashram had gone severely downhill since the yajna began, and that’s saying something.  There’s a reason ashrams are not listed in Zagat’s!  Tomorrow would be my last day in Rikhiapeeth which felt somewhat bitter, but mostly sweet.  After a long and arduous stay at the ashram, I was ready for some creature comforts, and some waffles.

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The next morning went pretty much the same as usual, except at the yajna our class was provided prasad which consisted of a bag full of books, a calendar, a kurta and pajamas (mine was pink with white pants), a CD, a DVD and a few other miscellaneous items.  After lunch I had to skip the yajna and finalize my travel arrangements, get a printout of my train ticket (which the office refused to do for me), and collect all of my valuables.

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Local villagers collecting their prasad.

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I had been approved to visit Deoghar to obtain a printout of my train ticket, but the corner shop had a printer so I was able to get my ticket from them.  I still wanted to visit Deoghar, and River wanted to come with me, but it got dark so quickly that I was warned not to go.

After dinner I said some goodbyes and headed back to my room to pack.  Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to say goodbye to most of my classmates, but I will continue to stay in touch with them thanks to a Facebook group that Deepak is setting up.  In fact, Deepak visited me in my room around 8PM to say goodbye and I got a couple of pictures with him.

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Deepak and I

Overall, I have great appreciation for my first ashram experience, regardless of how difficult it was.  I could have done with a little less liturgy and guru praising, but at the end of the day I can be proud that I took the opportunity to try this.  I can look at myself now and wonder if I’ll ever return, but I can never regret not trying.  I know that I will incorporate some of the techniques I learned into my personal practice, but I’m not yet completely convinced in the system.  What I do know is that I’ve changed in the process, likely in ways I can’t conceive of yet.  But I will figure that part out over time, and become a better person in the process.

Rikhiapeeth Days 4-6

When I awoke on Wednesday morning I felt much better having slept about 12 hours.  I wasn’t quite at 100%, but I was better and that’s what I focused on.  I got up and did some yoga and freshened up for our first class that morning at 6AM.  The class went well and though I still needed to make frequent trips to the bathroom, the urgency was less and their was a longer period between trips.  After the morning class we were given our seva assignments (karma yoga, or selfless service).  I was assigned to behet (though I’m not completely sure of the spelling), which I had no clue was, but later discovered meant prasad, or sacred gifts.  This assignment involved a variety of tasks, from stuffing blankets, shirts, buckets, and rice into bags, or carefully folding commemorative scarves that would eventually be handed out to all yajna participants, including thousands of villagers from surrounding areas.  As it turned out, I got the best seva assignment there is.  On the way back to Patanjali I walked with a woman named River from Austin, TX, the only other American in our class.  She was so interesting and fun to talk to, yet another example of the really great people I met at the ashram.  Plus, since we were the only Americans in the class, it was nice to have that in common with someone.

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As the day progressed and we attended another class, we began to learn some actual kriyas.  As I discovered, they are a combination of various sitting or inverted postures, pranayama (breath control) and movement of awareness though the nadis, or chakra pathways.  Our first kriya was in a half shoulder-stand position which is an inverted posture which was not too kind on my stomach.

After class we were given the option to move our accommodations to a quieter area, as once the yajna began the kitchen would be running 24-hours and the number of people would increase exponentially.  I chose to move my accommodations to the Paramahamsa Campus which is between the other two campuses.  Luckily, I ended up with a private room since the person they assigned as my roomate decided to stay in his original room.  The new room was nicer than the previous room being in a newer building, and also had a private attached bathroom.  I must have built up some good karma to get that lucky.

Our last class for the day occurred after the move back at the Akhara campus.  We added a new kriya to our repertoire and I was beginning to get the hang of what we were learning, though not entirely convinced of it’s efficacy.

The next day I woke up at 5AM and had to do some yoga.  My body was still adjusting to the beds which were quite hard, as well as the cold mornings and all of my muscles felt sore.  I took a little too long getting ready and had to rush out in order to get to class on time, of course I wasn’t the only one.  We were fortunate to have a shuttle pull up at the very moment we headed outside.  We made it to class on time, fortunately, and learned two new kriyas in the first class of the day.

After class we were served breakfast up in Akhara to try to save us some time walking back and forth between campuses.  But we had to walk down to Patanjali after breakfast anyway because they were doing a service to prepare the yajna space before it would begin the next day.  There was singing and tabla-playing which was a lot of fun to watch, and provided a nice break.  But soon we were back at Akhara for our second class.  We had our first experience of Tattwa Shuddhi.  Each chakra is associated with a certain element, or tattwa, such as earth, water, fire, air or space.  Tattwa Shuddhi involves meditating on these elements through guided visualization.  But since this was our first exposure to the practice, it was a very simple introduction using large cards with different colored shapes on them, each one representing a different tattwa.  Following the Tattwa Shuddhi we did another Yoga Nidra session, but this time I fell asleep during the practice, which apparently is quite common.  Even so, it was some of the most relaxing sleep I’ve ever had.

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After class we went back to Patanjali for lunch, followed by more seva.  This time I was asked to help mop the Samadhi area where the two Havan Pujas had taken place.  Mopping at the ashram means using a towel and a bucket of slightly soapy water on your hands and knees on a marble surface.  I managed to break the skin on both of my knees, but I worked hard and got a lot done while being able to soak in some hot afternoon sun, though fortunately not enough to burn.

Later that afternoon, after our third class, we were ushered back to Patanjali for more drums and chants.  A band came on playing guitar and an old Casio keyboard and sang The Beatles Let it Be and Ben E King’s Stand by Me, but they changed some of the lyrics to venerate Swamiji in reference to the heads of the Rikhiapeeth and Munger ashrams, Swami Satsangi and Swami Niranjan, respectively.  I had fun, though I wish they had just sung the original lyrics to the song.

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Valerio, Iris, and Madhukar

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Dinner followed the service, and you could tell that things were busier than they had been because now there were runners laid out with plates and bowls made from hardened leaves laid out for all of the guests.  Rather than self-service, everyone was served food by several volunteers who just went from plate to plate doling out the food.  I was tapped to serve and ended up with a heavy pot full of vegetable curry.  After about 30 minutes of bending, lifting, and spooning, my back was in pain, but I could now sit down and eat, only to be made to do more seva after dinner.  We spent the rest of the evening folding scarves very precisely so the sanskrit on the scarves could be read while  unfolding it.

The next day started off very similar to the previous few days, except that I decided to do something I hadn’t done in 3 1/2 years, shave off my beard.  Looking in the mirror was pretty surreal since I hadn’t seen that face looking back in quite some time, though I think I looked quite a bit younger.

In class we practiced the kriyas that we had learned previously and added two new ones to our repertoire.  It seemed that each subsequent kriya was only a minor variation of the previous one.  While this certainly makes learning them fairly easy, it was difficult to feel the difference between them.  A small and rather bland breakfast followed this class.  I was having a great time laughing at our meager breakfast with two of my classmates, Deepak and Anand.  In fact, at one point we were laughing so hard that we got a few looks and had to dial it back.  After, we headed down to Patanjali for the opening of the yajna, which was also known as Yoga Purnima, a celebration of the full moon.

At the yajna we were treated to some more chanting with tabla drums, as well as an adorable group of young girls doing a traditional Indian dance.  Many of us had to stand up and dance during the performances, all of us having a wonderful time.  The program continued after a break for lunch with the recitation of the 1000 names of Shiva, another Hindu god.  During this recitation, our group was ushered over to the area where the two swamis sat.  We all got to sit around them and they spoke directly to us, which is an honor.  An audience with the swamis generally requires a level of devotion higher than could be expected from our group.

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Our visit with the swamis was followed by a kriya meditation led by Swami Yogakanti with all of the participants of the yajna.  I found the practice much more powerful surrounded by so many people and the smell of the burning incense all around me.  It was so strong that I was able to actually see light around two of my chakras.  There was more kirtan after, but I left early to retrieve my camera and iPad from the safe deposit box.

Following our final class of the night, I was walking back to Patanjali with Sumit.  He was going to be leaving the next day, having been recalled to work.  He said that he would be in class the next morning, though he didn’t show up as he was ill.  I was sad to see him go, and even sadder that we didn’t have an opportunity to trade contact information.  The night ended in a fairly mundane way, with more of the yajna, dinner, seva and sleep.