In October, I joined the Kwan Um School of Zen for a two-week pilgrimage to Buddhist sites in Northern India, followed by another week of travel with several friends. Notes from the road…

photo courtesy of Allan Matthews

Long bus ride from airport. Color and dust. Must get used to feeling dusty, because that’s how I will spend the next three weeks. Also having my clothes smell like smoke. The restaurant in Delhi left my shirt smelling like an ashtray, and the hotel room smelled like a smoker had just vacated. At home this would have been unacceptable, and I would have requested another room. Here it’s just the fabric of life, along with the smoggy brown air. Nothing to get your knickers in a twist about.

I notice that we are all doing a lot of comparing. This is like that. The neighborhood where I stayed in Delhi is similar to the one where I stayed in Bangkok. “India is like a combination of Mexico and China”. “Kuala Lumpur is similar to this.”

Mostly this is a good thing. It helps us get our bearings and feel more at ease. I liked that, therefore I will like this and be okay here. But there’s something to be said for experiencing a place that is entirely new and different. It hits the senses in a new way.

We got up at 4:30 this morning for a sunrise boat ride on the Ganges. After a short bus ride, we joined a dense crowd in the pre-dawn darkness, surging towards the ghats. I had to scramble to stay with the group, dodge traffic, puddles, and cowpies, and shake off persistent peddlers and beggars. The only effective response with this last category seems to be to completely ignore them. YOU DO NOT EXIST. I don’t like to treat people that way, but even a tiny head shake is taken as encouragement and intensifies their attention. Eye contact is out of the question.

Finally arriving at the muddy river bank, we loaded onto three rickety wooden boats. My stomach was beginning to feel off. Is this because I took my malaria pill on an empty stomach or is it a visit from Delhi belly? Then I discovered that my camera batteries were dead.

The ghats in Varanasi have to be some of the most wildly photogenic places in India. I’ve seen so many pictures and read so many descriptions, I’ve been expecting it to be the high point of the trip. And instead, here I am camera-less and queasy. Dukka on the Ganges. Ah well.

Perhaps it’s a blessing that I got this out of the way early on. From now on, we’re going places that I have no mental picture of, no expectations about.

~Try not to expect anything. In this way, everything will open up to you.

photo courtesy of Allan Matthews