Monday, March 16, 2009
Down 'n out in Patna
It was a good "john givot" moment.
It was 12:30 in the night and I got kicked off the bench I was sitting on in the train station, in the middle of the masses, by an army guy. He asked me what train I was waiting for. No, I wasn't waiting for any train, I needed to make a phone call I told him.
The problem was, which I didn't tell him, was that I had no money. Well actually, I had five rupees, about ten cents US.
There were so many poor people, I mean really poor, both in life and pocket, that I felt like I didn't have the right to ask anyone for money. All around people were begging for a few rupees for something to eat. Who was a rich westerner to ask for a lot of money to make a phone call to the other side of the world, let alone get a hotel room.
Patna, where I was, is the capital of the state of Bihar, one the most over-populated, poor, and illiterate states in India. And you can feel it. On the trains and the buses, on the streets and at the road-side stands. There is a heaviness, like an emotion that pulls you down.
I didn't realize it for a while. I didn't know why I felt so down, yeah I was traveling alone and too far too fast, but still, my health was mostly good, I was meditating lots and when I was alone or with people I knew that I ran into, I was happy.
Later, on a bus ride to Lumbini, Nepal, from Uttar Pradesh (the next state over from Bihar and in a similar state), it became so clear.
Let me back up from the bus, one day. I had been feeling very judgmental and negative towards people and the local culture for the past few days or so, "Indians this..." and "Indians that..." And then, while I was meditating in Kushinigar, the place where the Buddha died, or attained his final Nibanna, I felt this hardness on my body, a hardness towards other people. And then I felt it begin to crack. I felt myself soften a bit, and the hardness began to be replaced by compassion. Little by little.
So the next day I am on this bus from Gorakpur to Lumbini. I had gotten on the bus after all the seats where full, so I stood in the aisle. Almost immediately though, I was told to come to the front of the bus and was given a seat. Part of me wanted to say, no, I'm not any better than whoever gave up their seat, but it felt like it would have been offensive to say no at that point, and I was greatful to sit down, not minding that it was under the TV, which was about shoulder height.
Next to me was a nice Nepalese couple and their daughter who was about ten. After an hour or so, the man told me to switch with him so I would have more head room. This put me next to the bus door, where I watched the completely full bus take on more people. The isle was packed with people standing, and just when I thought there was no more room, another family of six would get swallowed into the mass. And then another family of five. It was amazing. About this time another couple, very poor, also with a small girl got on the bus. The woman grabbed my leg to support herself as she sat down on the floor, pretty much between my legs, and I could feel a deep agitation in her touch. With this couple and their baby, came a palpable heaviness. I could feel it, I could see it, and I could hear it in their voices.
After about half an hour, they got off the bus, and the mood completely shifted. It got lighter; the heaviness left with them.
But, back in the train station in Patna a couple days before, I wasn't especially conscious of this heaviness, this "misery," the ignorance and deep aversion, the apathy of people surviving life. I just felt pulled down. And broke.
The thing was, I didn't feel poor. Here were really poor people all around me, and I simply had no money.
A few days before, my Visa card was rejected as I was leaving Bhod Gaya, the place where the Buddha became enlightened, and a popular tourist spot. I didn't think much about it, I had some cash, and there were ATMs in every town. A couple days later, in the next town I was staying in, my card was rejected again. I got a little worried and went to the bank, where they told me the problem was that this was a small town, in the city it would work no problem. I changed the last of my US currency, a twenty dollar bill, to rupees at the one fancy hotel in town, and continued on.
After arriving in Patna, I went straight to the museum to get in before it closed. It has a large portion of the "Bhudda relics," bits of his bones, which were left after his cremation. I don't understant why, but there is an intensity when meditating near them, and I had been told by a British guy to go there.
To see the relics, it costs five-hundred rupees, only about ten dollars US, but a fortune in India. So I spent my last five-hundred rupee note to meditate in front of the relics for fifteen minutes, then I meditated some more in the museum and a bit more outside.
Then it was on to the next train. Fifteen rupees in a shared auto-rickshaw got me to Hajipur, the next train station, which was an hour away on the other side of the Ganges (and the worlds longest bridge I was told, at 7 km).
I arrived late for my train and without enough cash to buy the R60/ ticket anyway. Twenty minutes of standing in line for the ATM confirmed my fears -- my Visa card didn't work. I walked a mile, trying different ATMs along the way, not willing to pay for a taxi. The ride back across the river, this time in the dark haze (the pollution makes the air in Los Angelos look like paradise) cost R20, leaving me with five rupees. I could only hope the card would work in the city, but I wasn't feeling it.
Back at the main Patna train station, and five ATM rejections later, I sat down on a bench and tried to meditate, while getting hammered by mosquitos.
This is when the army guy kicked me off the bench. My five rupees weren't near enough for a phone call, which was about R30/ per minute to the US, but they would buy me a couple of somosas the next day, which I would want. (I had gotten sick the day before, and had only eaten fruit that day, not to mention blowing my dinner out both ends the night before, which was after a hard day of hiking.)
I was exuasted, hungry, broke, without a plan, and didn't feel like I had the right to ask anyone for help. I had already been rejected after asking for help from an office in the train station. Part of me wanted to curl up and escape to sleep, but if I was going to get help from the US, it had to be during the Indian night, since the time difference is about twelve hours.
Suprisingly though, I felt OK about it. On the way down the platform, I walked into a different office, one that had five or six Indian Rail workers passing the time in it.
I sat down and explained my dilemna to one guy who spoke English. He wanted to try my card, so I humored him and we went out to the ATM together. Back in the office, he asked me how I was going to solve "my problem."
I shook my head; I didn't know, I really didn't. Another old guy sitting across the room gestured with his hand to his mouth, asking if I had had "kana," dinner. I shook my head.
He pulled out a hundred rupee note, quite a lot of money and handed it to me. I had to hold back tears.
Forget food though, a hundred rupees is enough for a three minute call home. I asked if I could recieve a call on one of their cell phones and I about danced off to the phone guy's booth.
While I was waiting for my mom to call back with info about Western Union, the train guy asked me what my work was. Did I have children? Was I married? What was my religion? Sorry, I don't have a job, no wife, no kids, and no religion. The clincher though, was when he asked me whether I bathed every day. Made me feel pretty pathetic in his eyes. And to give him credit for the last question, I was filthy.
Sometimes we need to get humbled and helped and patched up by those who we think are less and who we think make our lives harder. It makes me realize we are all trying to get by, to live our lives the best we know.
Posted by John Givot at 8:16 AM
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Amazing story and photographs. Please keep us updated as often as you can. I want to hear more about your experiences in India. Stay safe.