Monday, April 5, 2010

Bodhgaya Vacation - Part I

Post Bodhgaya -- March 15, 2010

We are on a short vacation from the Karavan in Bodhgaya, the place where Buddah sat under the Bodhi tree until he became enlightened. Anna (McLeod or Ireland) and I lived here for a month in 2006 while participating in a month-long art event so wanted to visit old friends and places (however, although the places are mostly still here -- along with MANY new guest houses, restaurants and shops -- we haven’t met many of the town people we knew before).

We, along with Eric (VanHove of Belgium) and Kata (Lengyel of Hungary) and Beatrice (Diddier of Belgium), are staying in the beautiful new Rajhul Guest House (Kalachakra Ground 00916312200709 or 09934463849 ... we paid 600 rupees/night for double rooms) which is CLEAN, has SCREENS in the windows (first I’ve seen) and HOT SHOWERS (actual showers... not just a bucket! First shower since I left home in January)

Bodhgaya overflows with temples and statues... a giant stone Buddha that sits in the clouds, Japanese, Chinese and Thai temples, the main temple where the Bhodi tree grows amidst layers and layers and layers of fluttering prayer flags and flocks of devoted pilgrims, and many, many more. Today we’re heading to Rajgir, a town 80 km away with a mountain topped with a Japanese Peace Pagoda. A rickety ski lift lurches you to the top.

But, thus far, the thing that’s most interesting (and annoying) here is the beggar kids. They have taken the art of begging to a high level. Here’s how it works. A (fairly well-spoken) boy chats you up (exhibiting his wisdom through a recitation of the capitals of countries around the world). Eventually he gets around to inviting you to visit his school (chock full of orphans, poverty-stricken Indian kids, and -- in the our case -- mini-monks in training). Once you arrive at the “school” you are given a tour (heavy emphasis on lack of school books, supplies and furnishings), introduced to the “principal” (i.e., skilled fundraiser) and corralled into the office (where you sit awkwardly until you hand over some money... oh, I mean, make a charitable donation).

We met our scammer at the temple. The boy was dressed in monk’s robes and since we all were interested in visiting a school for the monks, we accepted his invitation with enthusiasm. However, once we arrived at the school, there were no student monks, our mini-monk turned into major-fundraiser, and I remembered (belatedly, granted) that even Lonely Planet warns tourists about the school donation scam. We left with all of our rupees still with us.

Since then, I’ve been hit up with the “visit my school” scam hourly when in town... the stories vary slightly but always end with the invitation to tour the school. I’d be curious to know what the kids get out of the deal (so many rupees per head brought through the door? a cut of the donations? a place in heaven? a free education?)

(Note: Last night we hung out with some local men at the restaurant and one of them told me that 85% of the kids of Bodhgaya have their educations funded completely by donations. I told him that they should not leave the education of their children in the hands of strangers. What happens if and when the donations stop?)

In addition to the school scammers, beggars of every size, shape, age, and sex swarm through the town, asking for money, biscuits, school shoes, school pens, etc, etc. Unlike other Indian towns, these beggars are hard-core -- out for money and/or merchandise. I usually talk to and joke around with the beggars and sometimes give them a yarn bracelet...but this group isn’t very interested in such chatter or kindness... they want the GOODS! (One kid stuck with us for an hour or more, so I gave him a bracelet and talked with him for a long while. However, when I failed to give him anything except some grapes, he had someone untie his bracelet and ordered me to take it back.)

But, still, the local people are wondrous. The food is delicious! We had dinner at a restaurant a short distance from our hotel last night. One of the waiters has been so kind and friendly that I had given him a bracelet in the morning; he is now my brother. When we arrived at the restaurant, he had them move a table and chairs outside to the small patio, provided me with a cushion for my chair and a new mosquito coil for our feet. The food was absolutely delicious (momos, spaghetti with spinach and cheese, thuktpa -- thick soup) and the atmosphere was warm and tropical. (Kata kept telling us she was on the beach somewhere; no longer in India).

An interesting note: Bodhgaya has an international airport but no domestic service... I guess they’re flying foreigners directly in and out (nice captive audience). It would be a nice place to acclimate yourself into India, though, instead of Delhi or Kolkata or Mumbai!

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