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.
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.