You simply cannot fully experience the Yamuna River flowing lazily past the Taj Mahal at sunset unless you are standing upon the white marble yourself. The moment is almost surreal as a boatman steers his craft towards home and women dressed in richly dyed saris fold the many-colored cloths that had been laid out upon the rocks to dry. A deep orange sun sheds its final light of the day through an aromatic haze rising from the surrounding home fires. The stillness of the scene is briefly interrupted as flocks of migratory birds take flight in a cacophony of cries and fluttering wings, circling about for a short time they settle once again along the banks of the river.
I was once intimidated by the very idea of foreign travel. A lack of self confidence in my ability to overcome the seemingly impenetrable language barrier, strange customs and even stranger cuisine held me captive. This insecurity was reinforced by the “what ifs?” and the sensationalized horror stories from around the globe that we are bombarded with every day from news outlets who prey on and feed our fears. I bought in completely to the notion that there were monsters in the closet and the only safe place was tucked into my bed.
Some might find much of this surprising coming from a guy who, as a young man, hitchhiked his way up and down the East Coast and then out to California on a quest to climb Mount Shasta. Who spent two years as a wilderness counselor taking troubled boys on river adventures, sometimes lasting a month. That was an amazing experience. To this day I hope that I was able to give those boys half as much as they gave me. We paddled the Savanah and Great Pee Dee Rivers to the coast along with an extended trip down the Wateree River, down the length of Lake Marion, and on to Charleston via the Santee River. Perhaps it was these experiences that provided me the insight needed to overcome my inner travel obstacles.
Though filled with insecurities I was captivated by the wonder of it all. The stories I read of travelers and their adventures, the people, the places and all the wondrous sites, both natural and manmade, pulled me to them like a spirit to the light. I wanted to experience these things for myself. A career, raising a family and the day-to-day of life however became the new bonds that held me captive. Then as if in an instant everything changed. That’s a story for another time.
I was in my early thirties when I took on my first trip to another land. There were no warm up trips to “learn how to do it”. With butterflies in my stomach, I nervously got on a plane and headed east for a month-long journey through India with my friend and teacher Venerable Geshe Tsulga. The experience opened my eyes and heart to so many new and amazing things, people and places. Yes, it was difficult at times and worth every moment.
When I first arrived in India every sense was assaulted. You could taste the heavy air, filled with the smoke of hundreds of small fires and the dust of the Red Desert. Voices in an indiscernible language coming at you from every direction, even the glow of the street lights appeared different. That first ride through Delhi, worn out from 16 hours of air travel made me question my resolve.
With a good night’s rest and dawn of a new day, any questions of resolve from the previous night quickly dissolved. The people I met were so very helpful, warm and inviting. They always wanted to show India at its best. Their kindness and hospitality was overwhelming. As it turned out my language fears didn’t matter. In the bigger cities most people “had” some English as they said. In the more rural areas gestures and smiles worked quite well.
While in India I took a trip to Dharmsala, which is in the foothills of the Himalaya and is home to the Dali Lama and the Tibetan government in exile. To get to this small hill station from Delhi I took an overnight train to the border town of Pathankot in the state of Punjab, it was then another six hours up into the mountains by taxi. A young man who worked in the house in Delhi where I was staying generously offered to book my rail passage. I had expected my own nicely private sleeper berth on the train, but instead he had booked me into a regular sleeper with what felt like all of the masses of India squeezed into this one car. I was a bit unnerved at first but as there was no changing it I decided to make the best of the situation.
You’ve seen photos and videos of these trains with people perched atop the rail cars as they snaked their way through tunnels and mountain passes. Inside, the cars are always crowded with people and livestock all rocking back and forth to the rhythm of the rail. The truth is that the reality was not much different, however, what the videos and photos fail to relate is the warmth and joy of these people living their lives or perhaps embarking on a holiday. Just for the record, I did not encounter any livestock on this particular train.
It was already getting dark when we pulled out of the station and as the clickety-clack of the rail began I settled in for the journey. The delicious smell of curry permeated the air. There were a few families who sat together talking and sharing a picnic style meal they had brought for the long trip. A group of four young Indian men playing cards were beside me. They didn’t seem to take the game very seriously and laughed and sang through most of the night. Beautifully dark-skinned women, their amazing almond eyes and their brightly colored saris swishing gently as they walked up and down the aisle, visiting and chatting with other travelers, seemed to brighten the dingy railcar. They would smile at me and nod their heads from side to side. I wasn’t sure what this meant, but it seemed friendly enough. All the while the most popular Bollywood songs played through tinny speakers creating the soundtrack for my Indian travels. Curious children’s stares at the unusual site of a big American guy on the train soon relaxed me into enjoying the journey. At one point one of the card players made a bit of conversation asking me where I was from and where I was going. We had a nice chat through his broken English and my nonexistent Hindi. In the end he returned to his friends and his card game but not before saying “I am glad you are traveling with us in this way. Now you can see the real India”. He was so right. This overnight train ride became one of the most memorable parts of the entire trip and to this day hearing Asha Bhosle brings me back to that moment.
Perched atop a high ridge at the southern edge of the Himalayas. Dharmsala and the upper village of McLeod Ganj are in the Himachal Pradesh. Behind the village is the Dhauladhar Range and the mountain peak, Hanuman Ka Tibba at 18,000 feet. Spread out below are the vast plains of India, lush and green, they seem to go on forever. Being the home place of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, there are many monasteries and temples painted in the maroon and gold of Tibetan tradition. Westerners of every stripe wander the streets along with the locals and beggars. I am always fascinated by Western travelers. The cool hippie types with the dressed down minimalist look who mostly avoid the tour bus crowd with their plethora of cameras, sun shirts and white socks. It seemed kind of funny to me this odd contrast and conformity by both groups to their uniforms.
My traveling companion and teacher Geshe Tsulga or Geshe-la, as I called him, was a Tibetan Buddhist Monk who had escaped from Tibet as the Chinese invaded in 1959. He lived in exile in India until he came to the United States in 1992 to teach the dharma which is the teachings of the Buddha. I met him soon after he arrived in North Carolina, and it seems there was an instant connection. He spoke very little English at the time of our travels and my Tibetan was pretty limited, but we made it work and often laughed at our verbal fumbling.
A Tibetan family invited Geshe-la and I to their home for a meal. As always, the language divide was present, yet with my little bit of Tibetan and their little bit of English we were able to have a great evening full of laughter and food. I was keenly aware that these people lived on the edge so I made a point of not putting too much on my plate. I quickly learned a valuable lesson, don’t finish your meal before your Tibetan host. If you do they will simply insist that you must still be hungry and despite your saying no, no please no, they will find a way to put more on your plate.
From Dharmsala Geshe-la and I traveled across India visiting Varanasi and the Ghats of the sacred Ganges River, Deer Park where the Buddha gave his first teaching and Bodhgaya where we circumambulated the Maha Bodhi Stupa at the spot where the Buddha attained enlightenment. We walked leisurely beneath the Bodhi tree where the Buddha is said to have sat in meditation. I thought that it would be great to bring a leaf home from this much revered tree. Feeling it would be completely inappropriate I dared not reach up and grab one. As I marveled at this ancient tree and the simple fact that I was there at all, a leaf floated gently down into my open hands.
It is difficult to describe what it is like to walk in cities thousands of years old. Varanasi seemed to be crumbling in on itself paradoxically with new building sprouting from the rubble. I mentioned this to a taxi driver as we made our way through the crowded streets, “Oh it is ok sir,” he replied his head nodding from side to side, “It has been like this for 5000 years. We simply take what has fallen down and use it to build something new.” I felt there was a lesson in there somewhere.
Our journey ended in the far south of India where Geshe-la and his fellow refugee monks had rebuilt their monastery, Sera Monastic University. In those early days there were only a few thousand monks living there. Life was difficult, most monks had little more than one meal a day. They did the best they could with what they had crowding 8 or 10 monks into a single room. Despite the adversity they devoted their life to their studies.
I would be remiss if I did not mention the laughter. Somehow, in spite of all the challenges they faced, the Tibetan people have not lost their sense of humor. Their laughter was from the heart and shared by all. In a very short time the monks and I formed a very deep bond. They quickly became my brothers and we are as brothers to this day.
To travel to far off lands can be transformative if you are willing to embrace the differences between us and recognize the fundamentals that make us all a part of this human family. Through embracing our differences, we each come to know ourselves a little bit better. A Buddhist teacher once explained to me that understanding others and what motivates them is quite simple. Each of us, in our own way, is motivated by our search for happiness. A very simple statement but when you begin to see the truth of it in the auto rickshaw driver in Delhi, the Inuit selling his handmade drums on the streets of Anchorage, or the businessman prowling the halls of some high-rise, you begin to see them as something other than a stranger. You see the commonality in the human condition. Instead of writing off as unimportant the man squatting on the side of the road repairing sandals, his face as sun worn as the leather he works, you begin to see a man who is providing for his family, a man with hopes and dreams, joys and sorrows. At the end of the day he goes home to his wife, they have their meal and discuss the day, the children and look to the future. They sleep together, and they love together in a quest for happiness. With the epiphany that your differences are only superficial you soon find that having a conversation and sharing a knowing smile becomes very easy. It is in this moment you realize that you truly are the same and all of those long held fears dissolve completely into love of your fellow travelers in this journey through life.
©2018 William C. Judge