KAPOORS ON THE ROAD
We were a little alarmed when we arrived at the Bangkok International Airport and found that our flight on Drukair (Royal Bhutan Airlines) wasn't even listed on the departures board. I panicked that the flight might be departing from the old airport, which is now used for domestic flights. Hailing a cab and travelling across the city might mean we would be late to check in for the flight. We were relieved when the woman at the information desk directed us to the correct check-in counter. There were a couple of other people waiting for the personnel to arrive and they appeared to be Bhutanese.
The flight was very comfortable and we were pleased to board an almost brand-new plane and be served a piping hot breakfast and some of the best airline coffee we've ever had. The flight was uneventful and as we started to descend into Gaya, I looked for a first glimpse of India. There was nothing to see even though we had dropped below the cloud level and then suddenly, the dust thinned enough for us to see a bleak, dry landscape only moments before landing. It was quite a change from Vietnam and Thailand where the rivers are full and the sun glistens off the flooded rice paddies. I had to remind myself that it is January and it's been several months since the end of the monsoon. It will also be several months more before this parched land sees any moisture again.
We were surprised to see the lovely design of the new Gaya airport. The architects have clearly been influenced by Tibetan monasteries and have incorporated some of the features in the simple decorations on the exterior. There were only fourteen people leaving the flight in Gaya, the plane continues on to Paro, Bhutan. There were probably pilgrims boarding the plane for the journey home. The arrivals hall was completely empty, with only a couple of security personnel milling about. We asked for embarkation cards, but were told there were none available at the time. The hall looked quite unfinished and then I noticed a small note taped to a pillar asking for our patience, as the hall was in temporary use only.
We waited for some time, wondering what, if anything was going to happen. Anil and I looked at each other, shrugged, and noted, "We're back in India". Our baggage started arriving on the carousel but the security detail made a little bit of a fuss when we transferred the luggage on to carts. Anil struck up a conversation with a young man who had been on our flight, he appeared to be Indian, and Anil asked for advice on a hotel in Gaya. They were deep in conversation when at last an important government official arrived with an entourage in tow.
We finally discovered that this was the first day that the new computerized passport system was to be used in the new terminal, and the official was on hand to be shown how it operated. We were the guinea pigs. We were finally given the immigration forms and one by one, the fourteen of us were duly processed. As we passed through the little customs station, we entered into the main airport building and I was pleased to see the usual hustle and bustle that had been missing in the temporary arrivals hall. We stepped out into the late morning air and knew we were in India at last.
The young man that Anil had been speaking with was returning from a business trip in Thailand and had a nice van waiting for him. He took us under his wing and escorted us into Bodhgaya, helped us find the State Bank where we changed some traveller's cheques and found us a room at one of the few hotels in town that had a free room. What we hadn't realized was that we had arrived at the end of a ten-day Buddhist festival and the town was swarming with pilgrims. Everywhere we looked, there were Buddhist monks in traditional robes coming and going to the main temple. If we had arrived two days earlier, we would not have been able to find a hotel room for love nor money.
We had a great meal at a nearby restaurant, how wonderful to have Indian food prepared by Indian cooks once again. We thanked our new friend, Lal Singh, a local Bihari Brahmin, and freed him to go and meet with his family and friends after his long trip out of India. He insisted that he would meet us for breakfast the next morning and help us to purchase train tickets for the afternoon train to Patna. I am always astounded by the hospitality people show to complete strangers. There's a lesson in this for us in the West for sure.
We spent the afternoon wandering around the small town and visiting the different temples that have been built by Buddhist congregations from overseas. Thousands of pilgrims come from all over the world each year to visit this most holy of places. We came here in 1999 with Adia and Raj as part of our tour of India. Arun and Neena had driven us that time and we found the place inspiring. It was during the month of March when the heat was daunting so the town was quiet and relatively peaceful. One of my favorite photos of Adia and Raj is the one I took of them in front of the main temple. Raj's toes are curled up because the stones were so hot on his bare feet. They are smiling but I remember that their teeth were clenched as they urged me to hurry so they could quickly put their shoes on again. All visitors must remove their shoes when entering, regardless of the weather.
We were shocked to see the changes that have happened in Bodhgaya in the intervening nine years. Like almost everywhere we've been, there has been runaway urban growth, much of it unplanned and unregulated. Buildings have sprung up everywhere without thought to sanitation or other services. The plastic litter was appalling, though I have to say that many people said it was particularly bad just now at the end of the ten-day pilgrimage period. We will be leaving India from Gaya as we purchased a return ticket to Bangkok, it will be interesting to see if things are any better when we return in April.
Busy, crowded and cluttered as it was, I have to say I was thrilled to arrive before all the monks departed. It was wonderful to see the temple alive with hundreds of people dressed in the burgundy and saffron clothes we had become familiar with on our recent visits to Sikkim and Tibet. Most of the monks have travelled quite a distance to participate in this event, many from as far away as Lhasa itself. It was inspiring to see how devoted they were and I was touched by the sense of accomplishment many of the younger monks appeared to feel.
The next morning, I woke early and slipped out of our hotel before dawn to watch the sun rise over the temple and take some photographs in the changing light. Anil wasn't interested in leaving his warm bed so early but knew I would be safe amongst the monks. I spent an enchanting two hours taking pictures and was even invited to sit with a sadhu while he applied holy symbols to his forehead. He was only too willing to unwind his long hair, dread locks that reached all the way to his feet. He unrolled a piece of paper to show me and I was sure it was a plea for money. I was surprised to see he was asking me to make a donation to the temple for its maintenance and repair. He wanted not one rupee for himself. It was a special experience.
We waited for Lal Singh for breakfast, and when he didn't show, we left a message for him and went out on our own. We decided to head straight for the railway booking office ourselves but found we had gone to the wrong place. We headed to the restaurant and arrived at the same time as Lal Singh. He had partied late into the night and then overslept. We weren't as concerned as much as he was, until part way through his meal he realized that his watch was still on Bangkok time. He hadn't kept us waiting nearly as long as he thought he had. We set out again for the railway booking office but found out that advance reservations can only be made up to the day before travel. We would have to take our chances purchasing tickets at the railway platform in Gaya. Anil was dismayed and was all ready to hire a taxi to drive us to Patna but I was confident we could get a seat and didn't want to face four hours on the road.
Lal Singh and his best friend drove us to the Gaya train station and found we couldn't purchase tickets at the window as the list of passengers had already been sent to the stationmaster. We would have to purchase tickets from the "TT" (ticket taker on the train). Anil was really starting to grumble, it's these kinds of issues that really frustrate him when in India. Instead we purchased tickets for the non-reserved seats so that we couldn't be accused of boarding the train without tickets. There is a heavy fine for doing so. When the train arrived, we took our time boarding the second-class coach because there seemed no point fighting the crowds getting on and off the train. Once the dust had settled, we climbed the steep steps and found all the seats in the train taken. What we didn't realize was that others like ourselves had scurried on board and taken all the vacant seats, on a first come, first served basis. We thought that the TT would be the one to assign seats. We met a young British traveller who was in the same boat (boat?) as us, but within fifteen minutes, three passengers had departed at a station and we had comfortable seats for the balance of the journey.