The Million Dollar Arm!
This is my fourth time in India and I am traveling this time with with my son, Charles, who volunteered to come and share the experience, protect me and carry the luggage. I made that last bit up! The new big bag of 100 compartments isn’t popular!
We began in Chennai, formerly known as Madras and India’s fourth largest city. My only advice re Chennai is don’t bother! To be fair, we only ventured out from the joys of our 5 star luxury hotel to a) go to another 5 star hotel to catch some rays and b) to go to Marina beach to catch some rays. This beach is much lauded in the guide book and certainly it has more sand than the Sahara. I think it must be the widest beach in the world. There were no westerners at all and Indians clearly don’t sunbathe, so as discreet as I tried to be lying on my towel as far away from people as we could get, I felt like a pork chop at a bar mitzvah!
We were soon spotted and bizarrely even a man on a horse (a horse on a beach in India!) came to have a long stare and trotted around me several times which was a tad disconcerting. We gave up after half an hour and began the trek back across the desert and then another crazy ride in an auto rickshaw.
Travelling by rickshaw is almost always an adventure but in a city as big and as busy as Chennai…..oh my! And we had added extras this time. Our tiny yellow vehicle had a sound system big enough for a nightclub, complete with flashing coloured disco lights! And in the front with our cool dude driver were no less than three effigies of gods and I closed my eyes and prayed fervently to them all as we hurtled through tiny gaps between trucks and buses competing for a tiny space with a motor bike and the odd suicidal cow! All this with a cacophony of horns blasting their impatience. On the plus side rickshaw drivers are blessed with magnificent spatial awareness and an insouciant attitude to life and death which I try to emulate not altogether successfully!
Suitably rested after our journey we set out to tick off number one on my “bucket list” and first was Bodhgaya, where the Buddha became enlightened. Fortune has smiled on me, because this was the very week when 10,000 Buddhist monks from all over the world have come to Bodhgaya for the 25th year of a mass chanting for world peace plus another 30,000 or so pilgrims so it got kinda busy!
The icing on the cake was that my friend Luis who is a resident volunteer at a Buddhist institute in California was here too as part of a team who distributed sixty nine thousand prayer books and prayer wheels to Tibetan monasteries all over India. They are desperate for them because the Chinese burned all their precious prayer books and ancient texts when they invaded peaceful little Tibet. And the reason that my friend being here is relevant to this is that I got to play a tiny little part in this huge incredible event which I will come to later.
But first a little travel encounter story. In order to get to Bodhgaya we had to fly into Delhi and then change planes. Sitting at the airport a cool looking Indian guy engaged us in conversation and turned out his life is going to be the subject of a big movie made by Disney, released later this year called “The Million Dollar Arm.”
He had won a reality tv show to find the man who could throw a baseball the fastest and won $100,000 and a contract with an American pro baseball team! To understand what that means he told us he was one of seven kids and his dad had never earned more than $35 a month. A lovely and very proud young man and for a very little favour we did he bestowed a very nice travel pillow to Charles, and invited us to his brothers wedding!
And so on to Bodhgaya which immediately felt like “real India”. No wide tarmac roads, just orange dirt, lots of cow shit and piles of rubbish. There were fewer cars and more of everything else…. The main road leading to the temple was a seething mass of monks in red, saffron yellow and brown, bicycle rickshaws, auto rickshaws, scooters and motor bikes, cows and goats, a million people and a lot of beggars.
I told you this was my fourth trip so I was prepared. Or thought so since I have travelled and even lived for a short time in the Himalayas and travelled in the North and South of India, both large towns and tiny rural villages. But Bihar, the state Bodhgaya is in, is one of the very poorest in India and I soon found out that It has one of the largest incidences of leprosy, highest infant mortality, TB, illiteracy and it goes on and on. Here is human suffering at its most profound and trying to describe walking by the most terribly deformed and disabled, wretched, poverty stricken people is something that is too hard to express. Is compassion enough? My heart ached with compassion. But what to do? Ten rupees here and there to as many as possible and I learned very fast to be quick and have money in hand because once I was mobbed and chased and it was a little bit scary.
There is enormous personal wealth in India and a space programme but still there is this…. Lines of pitiful, filthy, ragged people squatting in the streets, living and dying in the muck. Babies crawl amongst lepers and tiny children play in the crazy traffic. This is a problem for government and yet as I get to know India and the Indian mentality more, it is a little easier to understand. The people are more patient than us in the pampered West and infinitely more accepting of what IS and above all they have their faith which teaches karma and impermanence. And they have no choice.
But this was a magical, wonderful, three days for me as you will read in the next chapter!