We flew from NY to Frankfurt to Lahore, where we were met with armed soldiers as we deplaned. Hmmm. We had an overnight layover in this border Pakistani town, but first, we were forced to hand over our passports. This was unsettling, but the airport officials were quite clear that there was no choice in the matter.
In the morning, we were to fly to New Delhi to begin the pilgrimage. But, not before we had to suffer through some very thorough searches due to a bomb threat. All the luggage for the entire plane was deposited on the airfield, and in turn, we each had to identify our bags and lug them to the plane.
Finally, we lifted off towards New Delhi. No sooner were we in our hotel room, when my roommate took off only to reappear stating that she wanted to exchange some money. She had found someone who would give us a really good exchange rate. It was the black market. Did I mind? (Only afterwards, did I realize what a majorly dumb thing that was - it seemed so worldly, so exciting at the time. I'm very glad to not be spending the rest of my life, lost and forgotten, within India's penal system.)
While in Delhi, we visited the Taj Mahal, the Red Fort and other wondrous, historical sights in nearby Agra before traveling by train to Varanasi. (Overnight train travel in India is a very unique experience - one not to be missed. It shows how good of a traveler one really is.)
Varanasi, also known as Benares, is the spiritual capital of India. Located on the banks of the Ganges, I found Varanasi to be the most vibrant of the places on our tour. Its Old City is made up of narrow winding passage-ways in labyrinth-like formation crowded with stalls selling clothing, kitchenware, fruits and vegetables, shoe repair, mounds of powdered resins and incense, small glass jars of aromatic oils, and everywhere.... marigolds. Sacred cows plod through the cramped quarters, and more than once, I found myself flattening against a wall, so as not to come into contact with the revered ones.
Cymbals clashing; horns blaring; a body, swaddled in white cloth with a scattering of marigolds, atop a pallet as it's carried by bearers to the river's banks, where smoke rises from burning pyres; the cracking of bones and splitting of skulls as fires consume the dead. This is the burning ghats.
Once, it took approximately 15 hours to travel just 120 miles between one place and another, but extraordinarily long delays are something to be expected - to accept - when one travels in India.
Bodh Gaya reminded me of a place where Indiana Jones would feel comfortable. I could just imagine him having great adventures in this hallowed place, dashing amongst the throngs of monks, pilgrims, students, travelers and the curious, from everywhere on our planet, to pay homage to the Mahabodhi Temple, because it was here beneath a bodhi tree that Buddha decided to sit.... to contemplate..... until he understood.... and, became enlightened. It was here that I participated in a jukai ceremony and received my dharma name. It is also here that I became rather ill. Maybe from having tea in a Tibetan refugee's tent one evening. One needs to be careful about the water and cleanliness of cups and dishes and utensils and...... well, everything.
The last stop in India was Kushinagar, where it is said that Buddha died. The food at the guesthouse where we stayed was superior (in my opinion) to all the other places we dined. It was later that I learned of the rats running and scurrying through the kitchen doing rat-like things. (The food WAS really good, though. The rats didn't change that for me.)
Then, it was on to Lumbini, the birthplace of Buddha. Located in modern-day Nepal, Lumbini was in India when Buddha was born. As borders shifted with political currents and neighboring skirmishes, Lumbini found itself in Nepal. We stayed there for a couple of days/nights and had some down time before traveling by bus to Kathmandu.
The road to Kathmandu twisted and turned through the spectacular Nepalese country-side, and the terraced fields were just breath-taking. At one point, our bus route took us across a very rickety-looking bridge high over a deep ravine. I remember feeling fearful. Evidently, I wasn't the only one who had felt that way, because at the next bridge, we were told to get off the bus and walk across. The driver wanted to lighten the load of his bus as much as possible. Once we regrouped on the other side, he inched his way across the bridge where we breathed a collective sigh upon his safety.
Having graduated from high school in the same year as the summer of love, I had been dreaming of ambling through the crooked alley ways of Kathmandu for years. (There's a connection there and if you don't get it, that's okay.) When Pico Iyer's Video Night in Kathmandu was published, reading that just added fuel to my longing.
Kathmandu was intoxicating. Kathmandu was exhilarating. It did not disappoint. How to describe the sights, sounds and smells? I can't. I'd be writing forever trying to capture the exact words to convey experiences that were mine alone. But, there was just so MUCH of everything. It was also an opportunity for shedding any extra pounds. Was it something I ate? Or drank? I'll never know - though I kept recalling that tent in Bodh Gaya. However, as I began pinning my waistbands to take up the slack, I made a mental-note that a colon cleanse would be a wise thing to do upon returning home.
Visiting the Bodhanath Stupa (you know the one I mean - it's the large structure with the big Buddha eyes that graces every publication related to Nepal) and circumambulating in a clock-wise direction while setting the prayer wheels to spinning satisfied a life-long dream.
On the day I sadly said farewell to Nepal, the air was crisp and clear. As the plane climbed, and I pondered forlornly if I would ever return, my spirits lifted when the flight attendant tapped me on the shoulder pointing to look out the window. For there, with the sun blazing on its steep snow-covered slopes, was Mount Everest. Truly a National Geographic moment. I don't think I breathed as I gazed at the majestic beauty of one of the seven wonders of the world. Only when it had faded from my view, did I take my eyes off that glorious mountain.
Next stop was Karachi for an overnight layover, where I automatically handed over my passport. No sense in arguing with people who held machine guns.
In the morning, we flew to Paris for an all-to-brief layover before returning home. At this point, there were but three of us traveling together, and upon landing immediately got reacquainted with flush toilets. We purchased fresh fruit, cheese, crackers and a small bottle of champagne and moaned with pleasure as we sank our teeth into something raw and crunchy after days of eating well-cooked vegetables and rice.
This map was the centerfold for the journal I completed for The Sketchbook Project. What was to be a short post swelled into a larger one. As I connected the small dots, memories began rising and demanding to fill the gaps on this not-so-mysterious mysterious map