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Photo by AFP/Getty Images

Photo by AFP/Getty Images

As already had happened in Darjeeling, the Monastery of Rumtek was preparing for a special celebration of one week called Kalachakra, which means wheel of time, focusing on the correspondence between cosmic cycles and human cycles, between the external and the internal.

Unable to pass up the opportunity to participate in this special event, we stayed in one of the hostels near the monastery.

A mandala perfectly oriented with the four cardinal points presided over the temple, prepared for the occasion using colored sands arranged in complex geometries full of symbolism.

The chanting of monks intermingled with weird music produced by trumpets, conch shells, drums, cymbals and bells.

Occasionally, there were interludes in which everyone (including us) got a cup of tea made with milk of yak, sweet in the morning and salty in the evenings. I was in heaven.

For the children-monks, the ceremony was way too long, so it was not uncommon to see them throwing rice each other, playing with their robes, or simply bored to death.

One of them, not so much of a child, approached us one day and said in broken English, “Tomorrow the ceremony begins one hour earlier.” When we stood at the gates of the monastery at four o’clock in the morning, even the guards were asleep. Soon all the monks, children and adults, got to know the joke of the altered “wheel of time” and cracked up at us.

Apart from how funny you consider the matter, the Tibetans are the most cheerful people I’ve ever met, which should not be confused with sense of humor!

rumtek-monastery (photo by Wanphai Nongrum)The hallmarks of Sikkim are associated with the mystical figure of Padmasambhava, known as Guru Rimpoche (literally “Dear Master”). Back in the eighth century—contemporary with the great mystic Japanese Kobo Daishi—this extraordinary character spread the esoteric version of Buddhism all over the Himalayas.

Like Kobo Daishi in Japan, Guru Rinpoche is revered as a great saint in Sikkim. The presence of Buddhist monasteries in this region is therefore very old, and it was recently reinforced in number by the tragic exodus of Tibetans. One of those monasteries is Rumtek, located just a few kilometers from Gangtok (Sikkim’s capital), and the official residence of the “official” Karmapa. Unfortunately, he was on a trip and we couldn’t pay him our respects.

The armed guards stationed in turrets, and the sign with the prohibition of access to the temple carrying guns, were images that seemed totally inappropriate for a monastery. However, the confluence of the tension between the Indian and Chinese governments on matters relating to political asylum, coupled with the schism caused by the appearance of two nominations for Karmapa—which ugly controversy has underlying economic and political implications—explains the measures of safety.

Once past the first impression, Rumtek is welcoming. The many monk-children scurrying throughout its courtyards and terraces makes one quickly forget the shady business of adults. One of the children had a facial feature considered very auspicious (which until then I only interpreted metaphorically): a long white natural plume coming out of his brow. One of the few occasions I regretted travelling without a camera.

After the massive welcome we got from the children of Gangtok, my friend headed to the top of the city. I preferred to remain stationed on a slope, like a sniper waiting for the presidential motorcade.

When the cross of the peephole of my heart focused on the limo, I pulled the trigger. A bullet hit its target, only that, instead of deadly lead, it consisted of equal parts of compassion and justice.

A few days later, the Presidents of India and China met and agreed to opening the border of Sikkim, closed for more than forty years!… Curious coincidence.

(Romanticism aside, that was the sad political rubric with which India recognized a Chinese Tibet, and China an Indian Sikkim.)

A serious fault in the motorbike upset the plans with regard to the mode of transport. We left it behind in a workshop at Kalimpong, and boarded one of the jeeps that cover the route to Gangtok, Sikkim’s capital.

The narrowness of the road, the cliffs and the speed of the jeep are factors that may cause some distress in the weak of spirit. Even worse, they can prevent the enjoyment of the natural beauty of southeastern Sikkim, a curious mix of exotic jungle and rugged topography.

Gangtok has that indefinable atmosphere of all the provincial capitals, transited by people who come to the market and to make small transactions.

Coinciding with our arrival there was also the Prime Minister of India (AB Vajpayee), who officially visited Sikkim for the first time, an event for which the streets were decorated with flowers and flags. The next morning, when we left the hostel to visit the city, we found all the school children, flags in hand, flanking the main road.

The decision to take the children out of the schools to give a warm welcome to the president of the nation was an obvious political maneuver. The Sikkimese were the last to join India, unable to keep up their neutrality between the two bullies of the “neighborhood,” India and China.

When detecting the two big Western guys, a few children began shouting, “Namaste, namaste!” Those initial shouts of a handful of bored kids propagated in the crowd and derived into the rehearsal that would welcome the Prime Minister, with thousands of screaming children eager to shake our hands. When we turn off the road leading to the presidential palace, we were both under shock, really moved.

We decided to visit the ancient kingdom of Sikkim, nestled among places with evocative names: Tibet, India, Nepal, Bhutan… Before leaving Darjeeling, we had to apply for a visa at the Governor’s Office.

We stopped the motorbike at Kalimpong, a city at a lower altitude than Darjeeling, with one of the best climates in the region.

There we met a witty French man who had retired from “civilization” to live as a marquis for the same price as in France he’d survive as a nobody (ipse dixit). We also met a Tibetan old lady who invited us to tea at her place, as Baroque as a Gompa. She considered herself a follower of the Karmapa, the spiritual leader of one of the four major sects of Tibetan Buddhism, the Karma Kagyu.

Before dying, the Karmapa gives clues to find him again in the next reincarnation. The same thing is true with the Dalais Lamas, although the lineage of Karmapas is even older.

Unfortunately, at present two monks claim to be H.H. the 17th Karmapa.

One of them lives in a temple of Kalimpong, so we headed there hoping to meet him.

We bought the white silk scarves called “kata,” usually offered as a token of respect, and humbly requested the meeting. After a while, a Tibetan monk with western manners informed us that we were granted audience. We were led to a room where we could cordially chat with Trinley Thaye Dorje. He proved to be a charming young man of twenty, with good command of English and not lacking in charisma. Whether he was the true Karmapa or not, during those minutes, for me was totally irrelevant.

After a restful sleep, the next morning we went out for breakfast and to buy some clothes to protect us from the chilly weather.

As I stepped into the street, and took the first breath of fresh air, I suddenly regained my vitality. It seemed almost a miracle. The weakness and slight fever that had been accompanying me since I put my orange sport shoes in Delhi completely disappeared. I regained my appetite, and even the joy of the trip.

The English chose Darjeeling as a resort to take shelter from the rigor of the plains. My miraculous recovery proved their choice wise. Darjeeling is one of those towns hung on a mountain slope, over the void. The views are breathtaking, specially those from Tiger Hill. The golden-white wall that in the distance rises to the heaven is the Kangchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world (after Mount Everest and K2).

Tempting as it was to hike in the mountains, I was not interested in doing tourism, or in socializing with the many travelers who come to Darjeeling attracted by its natural beauty. Instead, I went to visit the many Tibetan temples, known as Gompas, settled there after the Chinese invasion of Tibet.

As soon as the train arrived in Siliguri, we unloaded the motorbike and headed to Darjeeling.

Darjeeling is the resort the British chose to escape the scorching Gangetic plains during the colonial period, at about 40 miles from Siliguri and 7,000 feet of altitude.

The winding road disputes the slopes with the “toy train,” a well-deserved name given its size.

The sudden drop in temperature brought an unforeseen problem: I didn’t have enough clothes (someone stole them on the train, as I told in the earlier post), and my friend didn’t have much to share. We stopped to put more clothes on, and my batch consisted of merely a pair of socks and a sweater. When the sun set, the cold was almost unbearable.

I closed my eyes, relaxed and entered a state where my body was leaning effortlessly with each curve. The cold, though intense, ceased to cause me suffering.

After countless turns we reached Darjeeling.

At the sight of the first pension, we urgently dismounted the motorbike and went inside to ask for a room with hot shower—which turned out to be a couple of buckets of steaming water, enough to regain the vital signs.

When it got dark I began to doze. But not everyone in the train felt sleepy.

With the hustle of reaching a station I woke up. Even before moving my hand to reach my backpack I knew I’d only touch its absence. I went out at a run, uselessly trying to spot the thief among the people on the platform. I approached an officer and told him about what happened. The uniformed giant just looked at me very seriously, wondering how could I be so naïve.

I returned to my seat, already calmed and with a grin on my face, imagining that of the thief opening what he probably though contained a treasure: a few T-shirts dyed after the Holi, my orange slippers, and an old blue fleece.

Although unintentionally, my original plan became a reality. Now I could travel very light in India… by flip-flops.

intouchables_indeWe returned to the train station wanting to get out of Patna as soon as possible.

After a while I realized that I had lost my watch, a cheap digital one. Without much else to do but wait, I went to ask at the counter where hours before we bought the tickets.

“This one?” said the officer while holding up my watch.

“Incredible!” I replied in amazement. “Yes, thank you very much!”

If there is one place in the world where one does not expect to recover his watch that is a train station in India… much less in Patna!

I went back to where my friend was waiting, but when I was about to tell him that good things can also happen in such a city I realized something was bothering him.

“What’s up?” I asked.

“See that old beggar sitting there?” I nodded. “A guy just kick him in the head.”

I noticed the blood flowing down his temple.

“But why?”

“Must be an outcast, an untouchable. Here his life is worthless. Surely they had eye contact.”

The loss of my watch couldn’t be more providential, because if anything alters me that’s cruelty, especially when the victims are the most vulnerable:  animals, children, the elderly, women, nature…

Deep inside I also feel sorry for the perpetrators. I can’t imagine the unhappiness of someone capable of giving a kick in the head to an old homeless person. Blood, though invisible, also runs down his temples.

After visiting the ruins of Nalanda University we headed back to Rajgir, already at night. The motorbike front light illuminated the road and the countless insects that briefly crossed ahead. The potholes were so deep that could entirely swallow us.

During dinner, consisting of a couple of chapattis and some boiled rice, the biker said, “I’m en route to the Himalayas… I can give you a ride.”

The mere imagination of mountains and fresh air instilled life into my veins. The heat of late Spring began to be overwhelming. Besides, although the diarrhea was under control, a lack of appetite and persistent weakness had diminished my life-energy to a minimum. In my rudimentary plan, the next stop was Kusinagara, the city where the Buddha died. Continuing my journey through the scorching plains of Bihar had got a too ominous tone.

‘Okay,’ I said after that brief reflection, trusting this new friend who so providentially had intervened in my journey.

The next morning we reached Patna, the capital of Bihar, and checked the motorbike in at the train station. We decided to kill the waiting time walking around. The walk included the bucolic vision of a person facing down on the floor who could well be dead for days, a tumultuous fight on a bus caused by a man who thought someone else went too close to his wife, a dying dog being eaten alive by flies, and some other equally captivating sights…

In the capital of the poorest state in India, sometimes it’s not so easy to distinguish life from death.

A writer who visited Patna in 1982 described it as “a town without the faintest traces of charm, a sprawling caravanserai of dusty roads and fenny lanes; a junk-heap of peeling, crumbling buildings, of squatter colonies earthed in tracts of mossy mud; a swarming hive of pan-chewing, meager-limbed men.”

*The title of this post and the above quote were taken from an article by Amitava Kumar.

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"Manuel Vega has written an extraordinary book. He has turned history upside down. I strongly recommend this book."
–Gavin Menzies, author of 1421 and The Lost Empire of Atlantis

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