By this time, Loi, Phong and Trung had flown into Singapore and staying with some of Loi’s relatives; I spoke with them on the phone and was assured that everything was on course. They flew out to Kathmandu a day before me in mid-November. Kalu met me at the airport, having been notified by Charles that I was coming. He took me to a hotel in the city.

It wasn’t long before I ran into Trung in Thamel, the tourist-belt, and he took me to their hotel, which was cheaper than mine, so I moved there. I then set about showing them around, but this wasn’t easy, especially with Phong, who didn’t want to get up early to go places, and complained that he thought this was to be a holiday where he’d be able to relax, and that he needed ten hours’ sleep a day! He hadn’t brought anything with him in the way of provisions, but greedily ate whatever I’d given them money to bring for me; he behaved like a spoiled brat! Trung was alright for a while, and wasn’t like Phong.

We met Raju, a thanka-shop owner, who appeared quite friendly and trustworthy; we sometimes used to drop in to talk with him when we were passing.

I applied for an India visa, but because it takes the embassy so long to issue one ~ up to a week ~ I decided to go to Pokhara for a few days and then return to collect it. I’d earlier contacted Yam Bahadur to ask if he’d like to accompany us around India as our translator; he’d agreed. Consequently, we set out, breaking the trip in Dumre to pick him up. We met his large family in their one-roomed home which had neither electricity nor running water, and gave them some money and clothes. He was soon ready to go with us.

I met an Australian Christian missionary in Dumre, who was busy trying to catch fish. Years before, the government had pro-hibited such people from entering the country, but now they were flooding in, doing their utmost, by whatever means they could think of, to convert the ‘heathens’ and ‘save their souls.’ Although most Nepalese call themselves Hindus or Buddhists, they are quite ignorant about their religions, and are very super-stitious, and many are illiterate, so this was a ‘happy hunting-ground’ for the missionaries; Christianity always flourishes in such conditions. You don’t need a brain to be a Christian; all you need is to believe the simplistic nonsense that is fed to you.

In Pokhara, we found a cheaper hotel than in Kathmandu, and spent a few days there, taking a row-boat out on the lake, and climbing up to the stupa. Then, with Trung and Yam Bahadur ~ who from hereon, I’ll refer to as ‘Ashok,’ which is the name I gave him to make it easier for the others ~ I returned to Kath-mandu for my visa, arranging to meet Loi and Phong at Lumbini; Loi had made a short trip in Nepal and India the year before; they would make their own way there.

Visa obtained, we took a night-bus from Kathmandu to Bhairava, and met the others in Lumbini as planned. We visited the new Vietnamese temple; it was one of several coming up there. Thay Huynh Hieu had achieved wonders there, as it is by no means easy to get things done in these parts where corruption and in-dolence prevail.

We pressed on to Gorakhpur and caught a bus to Kusinara, but Phong seemed unhappy that Trung should help me with my bags, though I never ascertained why; he never offered. At Kusinara, our troubles began. At the Chinese temple, the Vietnamese nun I’d met there before very rudely wanted to put us all to stay in one room, but I wasn’t having this, of course, and we got several of the many empty rooms there.

We went to the other main Buddhist places, staying in the Vietnamese temple in Budh-Gaya. From here, we went to Rajgir, where we climbed to Vulture’s Peak and the Shanti-Stupa on the hill above, we also went to the Saptaparna Cave behind some other hills. Supposedly, this was the place where the First Council was held, three months after the Buddha’s Demise, when a great number of monks met to codify the Teachings while they were still fresh in mind and before they forgot. I had never been there before, but failed to understand how a great number of people could have got inside, as the cave is such that it’s not possible even to stand up in it; the flat place outside is also not very spacious.

We returned to Benares to get a train to Madras. It was night by then, and the train was there, but in darkness, as there was still an hour or so before departure. We got in to put our bags down, but must have been followed by someone else ~ probably someone with a well-rehearsed modus operandi ~ and in the confusion, one of our bags disappeared; it contained my cam-era, our Lonely Planet Guide for India, and some other useful stuff. I later learned that Benares station is notorious for this.

The trip to Madras was long and tiring, and it took a while to find a hotel once we got there. The others were not interested when I showed them around, and when I pointed out the Courts ~ an at-tractive Raj-era building in the Indo-Saracenic style ~ and asked if they would like a closer look, Phong asked, “What is it?” and passed on. Loi complained about the food, saying she wanted something more substantial than what the locals ate (later on in the trip, she was quite happy with it, though). Trung got sick with fever or something and became rather scared, the little boy in him showing through. I took him to a hospital where I bought a new syringe for him to be given a shot in his butt (very unwise to trust hospitals in India; they recycle everything).

Loi and Ashok accompanied me to the Theosophical Society headquarters at Adyar, just outside Madras, while Trung and Phong went off on their own somewhere. We had quite a nice time. But by this time, Trung was fed-up; the cultural aspects of this trip were nothing to him, and decided to return to Kath-mandu, so got a train back to Gorakhpur, alone, and buses on from there. And Phong was more interested in watching cricket on TV than in anything else.

We went to Ajanta and Ellora, and also to some caves I’d never been to before, known as Pithalkora, which were remote and hard to reach; they were even older than the other caves; the sculpture showed unmistakable Persian influence, with winged bulls and so on. It was quiet and peaceful, when we arrived, with no-one there. Suddenly, we were aware of a group of Japanese visitors, who were on us almost as soon as we knew it, as they came quietly and respectfully. Not long after they’d gone, we heard a group of Indians coming, long before they appeared; what a difference in the behavior of the two groups! Indians are such noisy people, and screech and yell so much; is it to scare away any ghosts that might be around, perhaps?

The excavation of caves as monasteries began about two thou-sand years ago. As Buddhism spread and became firmly rooted, wealthy patrons showed their devotion by financing the building of monasteries and cutting of caves, and supporting the monks who came to reside therein. Artists were employed to carve im-ages and paint frescoes. The areas around would have been fertile and cultivated, with villages where monks could obtain alms-food. For some reason, it was decided to excavate caves in Central India, rather than construct monasteries, and these fared better than the temples and monasteries in the Gangetic Plain, which were easier to destroy. I mentioned earlier the de-struction of Nalanda by marauding Muslims.

On from there to Agra, to endure the hassle with the rickshaw pests in and around the station; they are little short of violent in their solicitations for customers. We negotiated with one of the less-vociferous, and were taken to a cheap hotel in the Taj area. Here, Phong decided he’d had enough of this trip and would re-turn to Oz to watch cricket on TV. Consequently, he got a train-ticket to Gorakhpur and went off on his way back to Kathmandu; I didn’t try to dissuade him, even though, if something had hap-pened to him ~ as it might have done ~ his family would have held me responsible. Before he left, I took them to places in Agra that they would probably not have gone on their own.

Leaving some of our baggage in Delhi, we went to Dharamsala, but it was snowing when we arrived in Macleod Ganj and very cold. We stayed in a hotel, and next day hiked up to Dharam-sala, as there were no vehicles running. Along the way, people on rooftops were bombarding passersby with huge snow-balls which, if they didn’t directly hit them, otherwise soaked them by splashing in the slush; I did not appreciate these games. Dhar-amsala is where the Dalai Lama resides, and people could still, at that time, request an audience with him; he was quite acces-sible. We did not seek one, however, figuring that he had better things to do with his time. After walking around up there a while, we descended to our hotel the way we had come, and tried to get warm. We took a night-bus back to Delhi, but it was the worst bus-ride I’d ever had, as all the windows were either bro-ken or wouldn’t close; it was damn cold and draughty, and the seats were most uncomfortable as we bumped along; it was such a relief to finally get there.

After more days in Delhi, we got a train to Bikaner in Rajasthan to the west. It was my first time there. We saw the fort, which doubled as the maharaja’s palace, and visited several Jain tem-ples. I’d read something of Jainism, and of what the Buddha thought of it, but had never met any Jain monks before. Jainism began at the same time and in the same area as Buddhism, and is also non-theistic. Inside the monastery, I wasn’t surprised to find the white-robed monks wearing face-masks, as I’d heard that this was one of their customs. One monk spoke English quite well, so I was able to converse with them. I was invited to sit ~ on the floor, of course ~ but on a lower level than the Jain monks; I noted the distinction, but didn’t object (many Buddhist monks also subject other people to this kind of treatment); I was also asked not to sit too close to them in case I came into physi-cal contact with them, because ~ one of them said ~ I was wear-ing a watch, the battery of which was alive! (?).

Saying that I knew something of the Buddha’s opinion of Jain-ism, in order not to be one-sided, I wished to know how Jains thought of the Buddha. They said they agreed with most of what He taught, but not with His meat-eating, which they found unac-ceptable as they are fastidious vegetarians, avoiding not only things like onions and garlic (as do many Buddhist vegetarians), but even vegetables that grow in the ground and which have to be uprooted, as that might cause the death of worms and in-sects in the soil. Many Jains ~ not only monks, but laity, too ~ also refrain from eating at night, in case any insects get into their food in the dim light. It is a religion of so many restrictions.

Unlike Buddhism, Jainism didn’t spread beyond India to become an international religion, as Jain monks eschew any kind of transport and walk wherever they want to go. They carry a soft broom to sweep the way before them, in case they accidentally tread on any insects and cause their death, and also go barefoot for the same reason (feet being softer than shoes). And instead of shaving their heads as Buddhist monks do, they pluck out their hair by the roots, though why they do this, I didn’t discover.

When I asked what they expected to get from their extreme practices, they seemed taken aback and didn’t know what to say. Out of politeness, I didn’t pursue this, but it is a thing I ask Buddhists, too, and could be asked of anyone: What do you ex-pect to get from your practices, and are your expectations realis-tic? Do your practices make you better than people who don’t do such things, or do they make you proud and feel superior? Does shaving your head ~ or plucking out your hair by the roots ~ for example, make you a better person? How? It is without moral value, and cannot be considered good or bad; it is simply amoral, and we lose our way if we think of it as good merely be-cause it is something different. The search for goodness can easily lead to conceit and hypocrisy, which is definitely not good.

While talking with the Jain monks, a Hindu scholar and his en-tourage joined us, and the situation changed. I didn’t understand much of the dialogue between Hindus and Jains, but caught a word here and there, and because I knew something of Hindu-ism, could tell that the Hindu was trying to prove his way supe-rior to Jainism. He was talking about Maya ~ a central Hindu idea ~ maintaining that everything is illusive and unreal. I found myself siding with the Jains, and joined in the debate by saying that things are real in context, at the moment, but because they change, ultimately are unreal. "But can you say pain is unreal if I pinch you?" I said, leaning over and pinching the Hindu’s leg.

We must resist the tendency to think ourselves better than other people because of our practices, and not elevate ourselves; if others elevate us we must be even more careful, because if they can put us up, they can also put us down. "Be humble, if wisdom you would attain; be humbler still when wisdom you have attained," says The Voice of the Silence. Sit on a high place and you may fall down; sit on the floor and you cannot.

There is no question about being better or worse; we only tor-ment ourselves with our comparisons, when in reality, we are in competition with no-one or nothing but our own lower urges. So, if we are not better or worse, what are we? Simply humans at a particular stage of evolution, and as such have come a long way in a relatively short time. According to anthropology, humans have existed about 4 or 5 million years, which isn’t very long at all, geologically speaking; we are new-comers. Early humans, however, were more like apes than we of today, but even so, they were our ancestors, and we have good reason to be grateful, for without them, we wouldn’t be here; if the chain of generations had broken, humans would have followed the dinosaurs into ex-tinction. How did we survive? How did the chain hold? It’s really quite amazing, and means that, as human beings, just as we are, we are incredibly successful. It is essential to try to under-stand this. We haven’t descended, as is claimed, but on the con-trary, ascended, and should think of ourselves as ascendants rather than descendants. There never was a state of perfection from which we fell ~ a Garden of Eden ~ as the Bible says; we evolved from primitive beginnings, and will continue to do so if we can avoid destroying ourselves and Spaceship Earth.

Outside Bikaner, we visited a temple dedicated to rats, thou-sands of them, worshipped and fed, and it is said that, contrary to what you would expect of them, their numbers never in-crease. Nor is there a characteristic smell of dead rats.

Travelling further through the desert, we reached Jaisalmer, where there is a remarkable fort on a hill, with scores of towers, and still inhabited. The town round-about has many mansions known as havelis, the sandstone facades of which are ornate and intricately carved. Jaisalmer owed its wealth and status to its position on the trade-routes of former centuries; its revenue now comes from tourism.

We got rooms in a hotel on the edge of town, but soon discov-ered why the rates were quite cheap: they expected us to sign up for a camel-safari into the desert, but when we declined, they told us we would have to leave. We went elsewhere for a couple of days, and continued our explorations from there. It was a peaceful place, with few motor-vehicles, as most of the streets are too narrow.

From Jaisalmer, we went to Jodhpur, the blue city, its houses blue-washed. The massive fortress on its rocky outcrop is a must to see, of course. As we were walking up, someone came out of his house and insisted we go in for a cup of tea; it was hard to refuse and we succumbed to his wiles, but only that far. Inside, tea was served, and then he came on with his spiel, which might or might not have been true: how he needed money for the treatment of his handicapped son. We didn’t give any-thing, feeling we’d already been conned, and knowing all too well about scams like this in India, and not only how babies are for hire, but are deliberately mutilated to be used for begging-purposes. I’m sure this fellow tried this with every foreigner he saw coming up or down the road to the fort; in fact, we’d seen some coming out as we approached.

It is not uncommon to see cripples on the streets of India, so badly malformed that they can’t even walk or stand, but crawl around like crabs; they are cynically used, by their ‘owners,’ to generate income, and couldn’t possibly survive without them. These ‘owners’ probably think of themselves as Hindus, and I’m sure they would tell you, if asked, that they believe in karma, but their actions show they have not begun to understand.

There were other interesting sights to see around Jodhpur, in-cluding the new and still-used palace of the maharaja, and a group of ornate cenotaphs of former rulers. The British shrewdly allowed most of India’s princes to rule as they had long done, and in fact, had their support. In the 1970’s, however, Indira Gandhi shook them from their thrones and they lost most of their vast wealth. Hard-put, many of them turned their palaces into hotels for the increasing numbers of foreign tourists.

Pushkar was our next stop. Built in a valley surrounded on three sides by mountains, first-and-foremost it is a holy Hindu town, built around a small lake which is considered the most-sacred in India, with ritual bathing-ghats and scores of temples. Countless pilgrims come here to begin a journey which takes many of them all over India to visit other holy sites. And while temples to Shiva, Vishnu, Rama, Hanuman, Ganesh and so on are com-mon throughout the country, here is the only-and-only temple in the world to Brahma ~ the Creator-God of Hinduism ~ modest as temples go, but with a good atmosphere; I went there often to meditate. Then, apart from its religious significance, an annual camel-fair takes place here, attracting people from all over. To accommodate the great number of visitors, many cheap hotels have sprung up ~ and I mean about $3 per room, with bathroom and toilet; there were even buffet restaurants with an amazing variety and amount of good food, both Indian and western ~ in-cluding whole-grain bread, such as one seldom comes across in India; Indian western bread is awful, dry and gritty ~ all-you-can-eat for about $1. Nowhere else in India have I come across such places, but there is only so much one can eat at one sitting.

We climbed two steep hills near the town, to get a good view looking down. We also went into Ajmer to visit the small fort of Akbar the Great, and a famous Sufi shrine, with the largest caul-drons I’ve ever seen; on certain occasions they cook and serve food to thousands here.

We moved on to Jaipur, the Pink City, and joined a tour for once, and this was quite good, as it took us to many places all in one day. It was maybe our best day together; we had fun explor-ing the great fort of Amber north of the city. Then, in the back-streets of Jaipur, Loi was amazed at my ability to find my way around, and was convinced I’d been there before; well, I had, but not in all the labyrinthine alleys we found ourselves in. I’ve wandered all over India on my own, and never felt afraid. I don’t feel this way in the West, where many people are aggressive and violent on a whim.

Anyway, back in Delhi, we got reservations on a train to Patna, which is an awful place, being the capital of the poorest and most lawless state of India, Bihar. Very few of the budget hotels will take foreigners, and we had to hunt around for quite a while before finding one; remember, we had lost our Lonely Planet guide-book, which would have helped us a lot. We took a boat-ride on the Ganges, which here is very wide, and visited the Patna Museum, but this is musty, dusty and poorly-maintained.

Getting train-reservations in Patna for our next journey was such a hassle ~ India really is Hassleland! ~ that we settled for the long and tiring overnight bus-trip to Silugiri, having decided to go up to Darjeeling. It was such a relief to get off, and immediately, we were bundled into a crowded jeep for the ride up the twisting and hair-raising road to Darjeeling, which straddles ridges cov-ered with tea-plantations, and from where ~ weather permitting ~ you can see the Himalayas We were not so fortunate, how-ever, as it was raining and cloudy when we arrived; our hotel rooms were damp and very cold, and I thought I would die if we stayed there long. The next day, the rain had ceased, and we were able to see something of the town, visiting the Tibetan refugee-camp, some tea-gardens, the Shanti-stupa on a hill, and the monastery at Ghoom. We wanted to visit Sikkim, but it was Saturday, and the office that issued passes was closed, and we were not willing to wait until Monday.

We returned to Silugiri, and caught a bus to the Nepalese bor-der-crossing at Karkabitta, but ran into a problem: there was a transport-strike, and nothing was running, so we had to spend a day there. I didn’t know at the time that it was Maoist-imposed; it was the first of many of their blockades I was to experience; their in-surgency was just beginning in earnest, and they could paralyze whole areas of the country with threats of bombings; people were afraid to defy them, as they were not empty threats, either.

Anyway, the next day, we parted from Ashok, seeing him off on a bus bound for Pokhara, while we got one to Kathmandu, arriv-ing there late in the night fourteen hours later. At the bus-station, as we were getting our dust-covered bags from the locker, we were approached by a hotel-tout, who offered us rooms at Rs150; we were tired and needed little persuasion to accom-pany him, and were as soon asleep in Snow-Lion Guest House.

Our trip together was almost over, but we couldn’t get flights out for some days, so had time enough to shop for souvenirs. We went to see Raju, who told us that Trung had visited him when he returned from India, and he’d invited him to stay in his home instead of spending money on a hotel. This was lucky for Trung, as he was treated well, and given food, too. Then, before he left, he had persuaded Raju to help him buy a quantity of bags on credit, thinking he could sell these back in Melbourne (just a fan-tasy; he sold very few); he promised to send the money for them soon, but had not done so, and in fact, had not even written to thank him. Raju was understandably apprehensive. I could have paid the debt for him, but didn’t; sometime of other, he must learn to honor his word without being bailed out by others.

Overlooking Swayambhu and the whole valley, is a hill known as Nagarjuna, after the great Buddhist philosopher. I’d never been up it before, so Loi and I decided to go, but it was quite a climb, and we were unaware of how long it would take and had brought no food or water with us. At the top, many Tibetans were per-forming a puja at a Buddhist shrine, with a fire of juniper-branches giving off aromatic smoke; into this they tossed papers printed with mantras, which were carried far aloft. Unfortunately, what should have been a good view was not, as Kathmandu is more often than not enshrouded in a thick haze of smog; you can see it hanging like a blanket over the whole valley when you fly in. The influx of people from the countryside has caused Kathmandu to burst at the seams, and the resulting pollution is horrendous. There is no viable system of garbage- or sewage-disposal; it is simply dumped into the rivers that run through! However will they manage to clean it all up, even if they finally decide to do something about it?

For some reason, Loi decided to shave her head, and got one of the nuns at a nunnery to do it for her; she looked alright, but bet-ter with hair. I was booked to fly out first, but on the day of my departure, there was another ‘strike,’ and no taxis were running; Kalu and his brother, Tashi, came to my rescue and took me to the airport on motorbikes; I left Loi at the hotel, and that was the last time I saw her. I had known, for a long time, that she’d been in love with me, but I had never reciprocated, and we always had separate rooms; nothing went on between us.

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