I arrived in Kolkata (Calcutta) from Bangkok on February 14th, (Valentine's Day), 2001. I remember reading a newspaper published that day in Kolkata: throughout the country, acts of protests were being held by fundamentalists in response to the celebration of the Western holiday by young Indians. My true introduction to India came when I got in my first taxicab and stayed the night in a small Indian hostel. The infection on my foot wasn't “going away” as I expected – it was the result of several motorcycle accidents despite the healing powers of an aloe plant that a Thai woman gave me from her garden (see the photos for the story of the Indian “hotel doctor”). All of my previous injuries were magically disappearing throughout my journey, but this one refused to budge.
In the airport in Kolkata, I befriended the only other traveler in sight: Bruno. We ended up sticking together for a couple of days in the city and I learned that this was his second time in India. Our first night in the hostel, I asked him why he came back to this country. He replied that he was here for the spiritual experience. He wanted to continue his spiritual education – and what place is better than the enigma that is India? On a small met he unrolled from his backpack, he practiced Yoga and meditation in our tiny hotel room while I read about the history and culture of this fantastic subcontinent.
As anybody who first enters India, I was shocked, appalled, saddened, amazed, enthralled, and countless other adjectives. It's just that type of place. I'm not going to try and explain those feelings with words – hopefully the photos I supply will do it some justice. What I will describe is my route and several stories along the way.
From West Bengal I entered the chaos of the Indian national train network south to Orissa state. As I wrote before, I was interested mainly in visiting rural villages, small sights, out-of-the-way towns, and great adventures. Traveling through the vastly different regions of India, I was amazed at the diversity of the culture. Language, dress, custom, food, everything changed from state to state. Keep in mind that I saw but a small piece of this great country. I could have visited more cities but I wanted to get to know India, not bounce around her from city to city. Consequently, I would visit towns and stay a few days if I enjoyed them. I traveled as I pleased, with no real schedule and no goal.
In Puri, on the east coast, I made an Indian friend named Bubu who was about my age. We decided to travel together for a few weeks. With this new acquaintance, I was given a key to a secret India – an India hidden from normal foreigners and travelers. Speaking several languages and wearing the six Brahmin strings across his chest to symbolize his high caste, Bubu gave me the opportunity to visit remote villages and explore ancient ruins of Buddhist monasteries that had yet to be fully excavated.
>From Orissa I went to Benares (Varanasi), probably the holiest site in all of India. The mighty Ganges winds through the region and Benares was built along particularly beautiful portion of it. On my rickshaw ride from the train station to the infamous Godaulia region of the city, I fell in love. Benares was a city unlike any other I had ever seen; I had just taken a step back five hundred years into history. I walked along the ghats (steps that lead into the Ganges river) and felt as if I stepped into an issue of National Geographic published in the 14th century. Cremations, hash pipes, sadhus, travelers, holy men, children, old statues, crumbling old buildings in different colors, narrow walkways clogged by cows, etc. Walking along the ghats one day, I walked by two dogs knawing and fighting over a human femur bone.
One afternoon in Benares I met several children who invited me to their house in a part of Benares that was void of any tourists. At the top of this old, skeleton of a building lived their extensive network of aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, and parents. One of the girls, 16 years old, spoke some English and I communicated through her with them. We talked and talked and ended up dancing for no apparent reason into the evening in a small shack on the top of this building overlooking the Ganges. I stayed with this hospitable family for a week and a half total. The father practiced Yoga and I did so with him: at six in the morning. I slept on the floor alongside the father and his children. They accepted me as their own for a short while. That's the thing about traveling like this: you never know when you might stumble into life-altering experience.
When I returned to Benares from my ten-day trip to Nepal (the story of Nepal will be published next week), I took a train east, straight through Agra (the site of the Taj Mahal) without stopping – I was totally turned off by the idea of interacting with tourists and going through those motions. I took a train to Punjab state and stayed for a day in Amritsar, the great capital of the Sikhs. At their pilgrimage sight, the Golden Temple, I accepted free food, hospitality, and smiles (all are customary at the great Golden Temple). Then, I continued to the place I was heading to since I heard about it: McLeodganj and Dharamsala. I arrived in Dharamsala. with a Japanese woman who was also making her way to this magnet of spiritual seekers. Our bus arrived at 4 AM, the town was asleep. We had no idea what to do. Sticking together as travelers sometimes do, we woke up a man and he rented a room with two beds to us. The next day we caught another bus even higher up the mountain to McLeodganj.
In McLeodganj, I stayed at a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in small, cold living quarters assigned to visitors. I knew that the Dalai Lama lived here in McLeodganj but that didn't really affect my decision for coming here. I wanted to study meditation, interact with monks, explore the world of Buddhism and Tibetan culture. On my second day in the cold, wet, gray, windy mountainside, I heard that the Dalai Lama was holding public teachings starting that day and would continue them for ten days. Yet another omen. I was becoming accustomed to these strange matters of “chance” I encountered on a semi-daily basis. As a result, I traveled with this air of comfort and real knowledge that everything was right in the world, my path was somehow “right”.
Here in southern Kashmir, I attended the teachings of the Dalai Lama alongside other Westerners and hundreds of Tibetan refugees. Both of these parties shared two common characteristics: His Holiness the Dalai Lama was their spiritual leader and they both traveled from far away to come hear him speak and bask in his presence. I attended a Tibetan Opera festival being held in the hills and was there when he entered with his entourage as the honored guest. I was but a foot away from him as he repeatedly bowed back to us with nothing but humility and a smile. He made his way through the crowd and it was a feeling I had never felt before. I didn't come to India seeking spirituality – spirituality was banging down my door – and it was coming in.
I volunteered at a small school that educated recent refugees that made the month-long trek over the Himalayas from Tibet. I taught monks English on a daily basis alongside a friend I made: Brett. Together we came up with lessons and just taught them whatever we wanted to. I also took a student one-on-one who had arrived a month ago. Every morning I would walk up a hill through a monkey-infested forest from the monastery where I stayed, stop on the street and buy some bread and bananas for breakfast, visit a man who would make me an egg omelet while we smiled at each other, and then go teach English to Jamyang for an hour. During the day I would attend the teachings of the Dalai Lama, read all day, or just walk in the forests and think. In the evening I would go to the school and teach the monks more English.
One monk who I taught came to me one day and asked me why my name was Neema. I told him my parents named me that. He asked me where I was from and I replied Iran. He then told me that Neema was a Tibetan word for Sun and his name was, in fact, Neema. But he spelled it “Nyima”. I took this as a sign – I had to do something about this. Nyima and I spent several evenings speaking at length over dinner. I asked him questions about his life in the monastery in southern India and Nepal, he asked me questions about America and my life there. These were conversations I had always dreamed about.
I spent another two weeks at even higher elevation in the hills of McLeodganj at a Vipassana meditation center. There, I studied the meditation technique that the Buddha himself taught all across the Indian subcontinent. I learned of the pure teachings of the Buddha (note I didn't say Buddhism) and followed the rigorous plan: awake at 6 AM, meditation all day (with several breaks) until 9 AM. No talking ever, no evening meals, and only small meals during the day. It was the most difficult yet greatest twelve days of my life.
From McLeodganj, I took a bus to the border of India and Pakistan, bypassing central Kashmir in favor of an area closer to Iran. On my last day in India, Brett and I together jumped on a rickshaw in the middle of the plains between India and Pakistan. Brett let the child peddling us to sit alongside myself while Brett peddled us the 300 yards to Pakistan. The people we passed laughed and I could do nothing but smile. Love was everywhere I looked.
Next week I will be writing about my short time in Nepal. If you remember, I took a bus from Benares to Nepal and stayed for ten days. I then returned to Benares for the great celebration of Holi. So, next week will be Nepal and the following week will be Pakistan. Hang in there, Iran comes after Pakistan and there is a great story of my entry into Iran from Pakistan in the middle of the Baluchistan desert.
Here is the view from the back of the human-pulled rickshaw in Kolkata. It took me a while to get used to the idea of being pulled around by another human. But that is their job, I don't see anything wrong with it now. It's a job of service – like being a waiter. Anyway, an interesting story about this picture: when I was about to get onto the rickshaw, a begging woman (with child in hand) came up to me begging for money. I had been approached by so many beggars that I was just ignoring them. Anyway this woman begged a few times and then the rickshaw man, who has the rickshaw as his only possession on earth, and probably sleeps under it, takes out a small pouch and gives the woman a few rupees. He didn't look at my with scorn or anything. He just gave her money. I stopped short and almost lost my breath. I learned so much in that moment – I will never forget it.