At 6:30 am Sunday morning (13 Dec), Mr Paras Maurya my driver picked me up from the Shivoy Hotel and we drove northwards towards Nepal. I found out along the way that this was Mr Paras’ first trip to Lumbini. The roads and towns along the way were similar to other roads and towns and even across the border in Nepal, I could discern any significant difference.
The Sonauli border crossing between India and Nepal was chaotic. There were many trucks lined up along the narrow road leading to the border crossing. Many cycle rickshaws, motorcycles, pedestrians, tour coaches, cars, pedestrians and cyclists were competing to try and get to the border first. The lane for traffic coming the other way was frequently blocked by overtaking cars whose drivers may have assumed that everyone would move aside for them. Some reversing and nudging… It really is amazing. The trucks were only allowed to cross between 10 pm and 5 am so they just park on the side of the main street blocking traffic and none of the authorities seem to mind. Everyone seems to accept it and just make the best of this situation. It would not be tolerated in Australia. I admire Indian and Nepali people who are so patient and stoic about all this chaos. I have learned a lot.
As a non-Indian, I had to stop by the Indian Immigration office located inconspicously on the side of the road. The office street sign was partly covered by a traffic speed sign making it harder to notice among the many shop signs along the street. I completed a departure form and had my passport stamped for exiting India. Then we crossed to Nepal and Mr Paras rushed about filling in forms and getting stamps for his pass which cost (me) 800 Indian rupees. I went into the Nepali Immigration office, completed the arrival form, paid US$25 for a 15 day visa (the shortest possible) and got back in the car for the onward journey to Lumbini.
Lumbini is another typical recreational park set up to collect money from International Buddhist pilgrims. The car was not permitted close to the site, so we walked about 1000 meters along a path and found the gated park. I paid my fee, paid respect to the Bodhi tree and walked around the building marking the spot where the Bodhisatta Siddhatta Gotama was born. The building has very thick steel framework structure. I’m not sure why that was necessary. It does not appear to be supporting anything except a simple roof.
Inside the square building, I walked clockwise around the edge, looking at all the familiar red bricks and then walked on the ramp to the centre where there is the image of Queen Maya on a wall and the marker apparently showing the exact spot where the birth took place. I paid respect to the birth place. This is covered by what appeared to be a perspex box, perhaps to protect the marker from tourists dropping coins on it in the same way they like to throw coins at the Asoka pillar outside the building (despite signs saying not to do that). I was there only 20 seconds when a group of 3 noisy youths, joking and laughing came up behind with a man in a uniform (apparently a guard) who was also laughing and pushed to the front. It was difficult to retain the sense of religious veneration in this atmosphere. I quickly left and walked back to the touts at the main gate.
I decided at that moment to visit Panditarama International Meditation Centre and pay respect to Ven. Vivekananda. The centre is a 1.5 km walk from the main gate. Mr Paras and I arrived there just as lunch was finishing. We waited with a Nepali lady for a few minutes and then went into the foyer. It was very quiet and peaceful. I felt as though it would be a good place for a retreat. I saw Ven. Vivekananda pass by and paid respect to him with clasped hands (anjali). He spoke with the Nepali lady visitor for 10 minutes and appeared to be explaining the rules for meditating at the centre. I had brief eye contact with him but he did not appear to want to talk with me. After completing his conversation with the Nepali lady he turned and quickly walked away saying nothing to me. I got the impression he did not wish to talk with me. Perhaps he thought I was a tourist and did not want to waste time. So we left, Lumbini and drove back accross the border, more stamps and traffic jams and then back to Gorakhpur. This is more time in Gorakhpur than anyone would ever want.
Sunday evening (13 Dec) I found a hole in the wall tour operator just accross the road from the Gorakhpur Junction train station operated by Mr Munna Bhai, and booked another taxi to take me to Shravasti for an overnight stay and return to Gorokhpur.
Because I value freedom and being able to make my mind up at the last minute where I am going next, I have to be patient with inconvenience, smoke, dust, crowds, noises, chaotic traffic, smells, flies etc… It might be more convenient to have all my travels organised by a tour group and be whisked from place to place on a large tour coach sitting among Korean, Thai and Japanese pilgrims/tourists. I might make new friends that way too… Anyway, I prefer to have a greater degree of freedom to choose how long I’ll stay where ever I want. However, even that freedom is limited by available hotel rooms, buses, trains and planes etc. I don’t have a teleporter to zap me from place to place and I can’t fly independently yet.