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…

Leaving Varanasi. Trying to get out of the hotel driveway is comical…our way is blocked by a bedlam of wall to wall bicycles, motorbikes, herds of cows, rickshaws, taxis, and trucks. As the bus inches forward, we look down from our orange air-conditioned cocoon at people who are looking back at us. Some of the men look pissed off but many wave and smile. The women look wary. The young girls are the best. It’s a relief to finally be able to make eye contact.

As we leave the city behind, the brown dusty smog is gradually replaced by smoky white haze coming from cow-patty cooking fires. Do Indians know the sky is blue? Our route takes us through many rural towns and villages, where life in conducted on the street. So many lives we get a quick glimpse of!

Bodgaya is a small town, home to the Bodhi Tree where the Buddha was enlightened. We’re staying in the Chinese Temple, which is wonderful despite the ultra hard beds (a thin pad over a wood platform). This town has Buddhist temples of every kind: Thai, Buttanese, Ethiopian, Vietnamese, Tibetan, Cambodian, each with it’s own distinctive architecture.

Our room overlooks the Tibetan Temple, where the monks chant and blow horns and bang drums every afternoon. In the night I try to get comfortable on the mattress. Outside, in the wee hours, groups of dogs have arguments that wake flocks of birds roosting in the courtyard. They tweeter and squawk for a while and then go back to sleep. Would that I could do the same.

We rise before dawn each day for intense, sweaty mornings at the Mahabodi Temple where the descendant of the Bodhi Tree grows. As we walk to the temple, children come towards us in the darkness – little girls with outstretched hands and murmered pleas, and vigorous eight-year old boys pushing maps, cards, malas, flowers, and other trinkets. Inside the compound, the place swarms with Buddhist pilgrims and monastics of every stripe and color.

One morning we occupy a corner for chanting and meditation. The pilgrims ambulate by in waves. Since I’m on an outside corner, I’m lightly brushed by the passing throng. There’s a group of white-dressed women led by a regal leader with a complicated Dr. Suess-y headdress and a gold fringed parasol. Their loud speaker blasts out a chant that sounds like SA-DU-PA! I slide into “listening to world sound,” immersing myself in the bath of drumming, chanting and clanging of bells that surround me.

Finally I’m practically dizzy with Buddhist overload. Waiting till it’s time to leave, I sit on a ledge and watch the bare feet walk by, while an ant skitters across the tiles, trying to avoid being stepped on.