My First Long Trip to India (4)

What did I do whilst I was in Bodhgaya?

On my first day at the project, I left my guest house at 6.30 and walked over the bridge that crosses the wide, dry and sandy riverbed, into the village. At that time of morning, the air is still cool and the light is beautiful.

dawn panorama

When I arrived school was well under way, with over two hundred children and five teachers sitting or standing under the trees, looking at blackboards, writing in exercise books, and reciting out loud. The school day ran from around six thirty until nine or nine thirty, and involved the children who lived there, plus another couple of hundred from the village and surrounding area. At nine-ish the couple of hundred went home – for many of them it was the only schooling that they received; and they were only able to attend because the Project provided it for free. The Project kids then ate quickly, washed and changed into uniforms, then went off to another school, which the Project paid for – partly in rupees, and partly by the manager doing some regular work for them.

Two other volunteers and myself made ourselves useful by preparing and washing vegetables, making chapattis, cleaning plates and bowls and manning the pump (there was a well, so at least there was a good supply of fresh, clean water). I found the cleaning process fascinating. Ash from the kitchen fire is always saved and pots, pans and bowls are all cleaned using a handful of ash as a scourer, and then rinsed. It helps that all of the utensils are stainless steel – cheap, light and hard-wearing. They come up a treat.

At the end of the morning, I went off to town for lunch, and also to buy a bottle of Indian rum from the Foreign Liquor Store; you have to go to a locked grille and pay for your purchase, where it is then placed in a brown paper bag and passed out through the grille. It all seems most furtive. I had been sleeping badly, and someone suggested that it might help, so I was happy to try it!

Then to the drug store and Ayurvedic (traditional medicine) shop to buy medical supplies for the Foundation, and then finally a water heater, cups, spoon, coffee etc. for myself.

I was gradually making myself at home.

Whilst I was in Bodhgaya, it was decided that I would act as a sort of secretary, which would take a lot of pressure off of the manager (who took about an hour to compose a short email, in any case). There was another volunteer arriving in about six weeks, who could then take this over, so that would give some continuity. I would also do a little English and maths teaching to some of the children.


The Muslim festival of Muharram was one event that happened during my stay. One afternoon, another volunteer and I found ourselves watching a mock sword-fight, held at a Muslim tomb, where at the culmination some ashes were symbolically buried, representing Imam Hussain, the Prophet’s grandson. All of the village were there, and a jolly time was had by all. Or at least a noisy one, which probably amounts to the same thing.

Once this was over, we wandered back to the Project in the half light, trying to keep an eye on all of the children (who knew their way back far better than us), where we were treated to yet another meal. We all sat around the courtyard on a tarpaulin, sharing plates of vegetables, rice, chapatti and, for the meat eaters, goat, since it is a special occasion (certainly for the goat, it is!). Lit by the light of a single hurricane lamp, surrounded by shadows, we stuffed our faces – adults first, and then the children.

We then meandered back quietly through the fields in the moonlight, listening to distant fireworks and drums from the town and nearby villages; although, other than the soft scuff of our feet in the dry, dusty soil, we seemed to be walking in an oasis of silence. Above, the night sky was a deep, vibrant, velvet blue and the Mahabodhi temple glowed in the distance, lit up by the dozens of lights surrounding it. We agreed that we were privileged to be able to experience all of this, and expressed astonishment that there are people who will pay thousands of pounds to go to India to spend their time sitting on beaches and living in plush hotels on the seafront.

To each their own, I guess.

One final snapshot from Bodhgaya:

The temperature and the humidity had been gradually rising, and I had reached the point where I was finding it difficult to cope and was desperate to get away. Eventually, I made up my mind to go to Darjeeling at the first opportunity and, suddenly, everything was different:

‘I investigate flights and trains, and start deciding on days. Strangely, I now start finding reasons for postponing my travel date, rather than bringing it forwards, as though the decision has given me permission to enjoy the place. Bodhgaya has become so familiar to me, that I start getting those ‘leaving home’ feelings.

‘After I have eaten, I head back in the night along the road that runs around past the site of the Tibetan market, now empty since the Tibetans have long-gone by now, largely by the end of February, most in January. It’s far too hot for them now.

‘To my left, in the darkness, I can feel the open, flat market area, sense the emptiness by the sudden silence and the moving airs; it is now merely hot, the sun long gone down and the breeze gives almost a feeling of coolness. I walk around the corner and know to a metre when I shall see the soaring Mahabodhi temple, floodlit, through the trees behind the darkened stalls; filled by families already settling for the night. On the other side of the road the familiar pattern of lights on the low hillside. I walk on, to the sound of the frightened cries of chickens in small cages on the corner by the clinic. I know where I am by sounds alone.

Down, then, to join the Gaya road and a maelstrom of traffic. Dust lies thick beside the pot-holed road and I kick it up with my footsteps to join the thick cloud hanging heavily in the air and churned about by the traffic, so thick that the few cars or buses with lights merely illuminate the confusion. The dust settles on your head, your clothes, in your mouth, in your nostrils, your eyes. The glow of headlights merely hurts eyes already smarting.

In the darkened area beside the police compound (they have to keep them somewhere), I await the point where I am suddenly assailed by the strong scent of flowers, heady and unexpected from some low, unobtrusive and nondescript blooms that give off a sweet, pungent odour remarkably powerful for their size.

Almost immediately I pass the Burmese monastery, where rickshaw wallahs pounce, then home.’

I left about a week later.

43 thoughts on “My First Long Trip to India (4)

    1. I did go, yes. More about that in the next post. Suffice to say I have been back to Darjeeling a couple of times since.

      Yes, the liquor store feels very furtive and forbidden. It has echoes for me of my time living in the middle east, when, as a westerner, to buy alcohol you needed to get a license from the police, purchase it from a bonded warehouse, and then transport it home in a vehicle concealed from outside view.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That is even more weird in middle east, now I feel lucky with the situation here, indeed that was also one of your strangest experiences 🙂 You are lucky to witness all these, unbelievable for the people of the west, it’s like Believe it or not experience.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. That was in Oman. In many countries, of course, it is forbidden to drink alcohol at all.

          I agree that I am lucky, because I have had the opportunities to travel – or, I have taken those opportunities. Does it seem odd to say that it did not seem strange? I am sure that it would to some in the west, but you create your own normality and I know that everywhere there are different ‘normal’s!

          Liked by 1 person

  1. Quite like a curated experience Mick! A large number of westerners visit India to experience and immerse. They take things in slow pace, use all possible means of transport, eat variety of things..interact with locals. That’s the way you can soak up on culture. A tourist on the other hand takes a snapshot of India with fixed itinerary. And certainly you’re not the latter kind.
    How did the chapati and vegetable experience work out for you? I have come across many foreigners getting astonished with variety of vegetarian things one can eat in India..specially, when it’s not bland! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The chapati and vegetable experience was a totally natural one for me, Arv, since I’m vegetarian anyway and discovered real Indian food when I worked in the Middle East about 20 years before. That’s one of the joys of India for me. I can go into a veg restaurant and know that I can eat anything on the menu! The Dal Baati Churma on your post, incidentally, look delicious. I don’t think I’ve ever had the opportunity to try them!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It’s great to know that you love vegetarian Indian food. I’m surprised with your choice of being a vegetarian, although the vegan movement has become very strong over the years but I guess that has nothing to with your preference.
        Dal baati churma, is a lovely cuisine, I love it! I can arrange for you, if you promise to visit Jaipur. 😉
        on a serious note, this is one of the authentic Rajasthani cuisine. Since, you went around Bihar, did you try Litti Chokha?

        Liked by 1 person

        1. When I next get to Jaipur, Arv, I will take you up on that! As for Litti Chokha, I admit I just had to Google it to see what it was; I think I did try it, although I don’t remember the name. I see the similarity to dal baati churma.

          I’ve been vegetarian for over 30 years, incidentally. It was a moral choice, for me, although I have found that certain aspects of my health visibly improved when I did.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Great Mick..will look forward to it.
            Many people claim that turning vegetarian helped them and they can see visible differences. One of the major belief is that vegetarian food is light on the digestive system and eating salad specially is no longer required! 😉

            Liked by 1 person

        1. That is a great opportunity. I have managed to travel a fair amount through work at various times; there’s nothing like being able to have these experiences and being paid for it! On the down side, there’s always someone who wants a lot of your time in return…

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  2. A beautiful account of the trip Mick.
    Well, I guess I fall into the plush hotels category lol. When we visited India back in 2007, we did all the touristy stuff. But we also ventured into the local areas and mingled with the locals. We even ate at dabas along the way…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I always think the best food is often found at the dabas – they do what they do best, and because there is a quick turnover, the food isn’t sitting around for a long time, either. i suspect that the only time that I got a really serious stomach problem, I picked it up at an up-market restaurant.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I have never actually been to Bodhgaya…
    I remember the existence of Foreign Liquor Stores… Long ago!
    In those days, ayurvedic medicines with high levels of alcohol were used as surrogate liquor

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I didn’t realise that was true of Ayurvedic medicines, however I do remember that when I worked in Oman some of the workers from India or Pakistan who could not get liquor permits were known to drink perfumes for the same reasons!

      Liked by 1 person

          1. Oh… that is their main liquor.. I had over half a litre one night, and followed it up with beer.
            I woke up the next morning, wishing I had never been born. That is when I decided to dry myself out for a while

            Liked by 1 person

    1. It was what I went to India for, mainly, Somali. Certainly I wanted to see the sights, but I was in no hurry and I always like to feel that I am part of anywhere that I travel, and not just skimming the surface.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I couldn’t agree more about the terrible squandering of an opportunity involved in traveling all the way to an amazing country like India and sitting on a beach somewhere. If I ever do get out to India, rest assured, Bodhgaya is a much more likely destination for me than some beachside hotel.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I think your piece nicely demonstrates the difference between traveling and touring. You traveled; going to a place and spending enough time to get a feel for the place and the natives. I’ve mostly toured; go to a region, skim the high points, and barely even meet the natives. Both have their place in a world full of wonders. It would be ideal to travel more and tour less, but I’d likely have to see fewer places given time and money restraints.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I suppose it’s a matter of what you want to get out of the trip. I took one trip around Europe when I was 19 and in the space of a few weeks I visited umpteen countries and saw loads of different places, never stayed in the same place more than one night and didn’t remember a damn thing about it afterwards. I vowed never to do that again. Now, I will consciously see a lot less, but spend time just getting to know a place – walking around the little roads, looking at the little sights every bit as much as the major attractions, and then sometimes going back to places for a second or third look. I don’t see nearly as much as many visitors, but, conversely, what I do see, i see a lot more of. of course, if you’re limited by time, you don’t get a great deal of choice.


  6. Mick enjoyed reading your post. As you have mentioned many go to India for a better holiday. Yours is so soulful and the experience you have gained is the best. I haven’t got the opportunity to travel like you. But would love to. It’s really interesting to know the ppl and live there like locals. Awaiting your next post on Darjeeling. Your writing brings a picture in your mind while reading them. You make it interesting to read. I have become your fan now. Enjoy your travelling. do write a lot about it so we can also enjoy thru your eyes.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I went on my own. I felt perfectly safe – touch wood, I’ve never yet felt at all threatened in India. I actually feel more vulnerable in many parts of London. Darjeeling? Brilliant. You’ve already seen a few of the photos…

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I enjoy your writing. It put a smile on my face when I read “…and a jolly time was had by all. Or at least a noisy one, which probably amounts to the same thing.” An absolute truth 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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