The last time I set digits to the keypad, we were anticipating a Shabbat dinner but it wasn’t the way things turned out. Ever since arriving in Varanasi, to a person, told us that everyone gets ill there, no doubt in large measure due to the abysmal state of sanitation and the water quality of the Ganges. Not that we are smug but Alison and I have had more than thirty cycling trips between us in south east Asia and India, without ever being sick. But by last Friday it was clear that Alison wasn’t about to continue our streak and by late afternoon had a mild fever and severe stomach woes. Disappointed as we were, we could not make it to Shabbat dinner. A few days resting, a dose of Ciproflaxin, and a steady diet of water and tea lead to Alison’s partial recovery. This allowed us to return to Chabad House for a welcomed meal, accompanied by lively discussion of life and Judaism. It turns out the both the Rabbi and his wife, she in her late thirties and he in his forties found their calling after a life of work and travel so we could well appreciate his advice and experience that amongst other things one is best off eating street food, where there is a large turnover and one can see what is being served.
Still, by Monday we decided to cycle to Sarnath, only 15 kms from Varanasi which promised being much smaller in size and the center for Buddhism, to be quieter and also less polluted. The roads getting there, mostly dust tracts under an expressway under construction. On arrival we were delighted to find that Sarnath wasn’t anything like Varanasi, which I earlier described as the confluence of all the contradictions of India. Sarnath is the place where Buddha gained enlightenment at Bodh Gaya and gave his first sermon in 528 BC and the sites and monuments here have been holy to Buddhist ever since.
Sarnath continues to attract large numbers of pilgrims of many nationalities and yet retains the charm of a small village with basically one main street lined with vendors offering fruits, vegetables and stalls and small shops selling a treasure trove of religious art, ornaments and Buddhist books. There are spacious Burmese, Bhutanese, Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Tibetan and Vietnamese temples many with monasteries where many come for retreats and dharma gatherings.
So in this environment of green spaces and lovely gardens, only moderate air pollution our good fortunes continued as did Alison’s recovery. We found Shivam guest house, built less than a year ago with huge rooms, with large windows and gleaming tile floors and beds designed to accommodate a family a at least five, the perfect place but Alison’s recovery was slower than we anticipated. So much so that we approached the local clinic to discover that we had to register for the lofty sum of one rupee and the medical consult with the doctor and all of the medications we received for all possible travel related ailments which hopefully will last for at least another thirty trips, were completely free of charge!
While this wasn’t the week we planned, by tomorrow, we should be on the road, not only of recovery but one of exploration of this land of many incongruities: one of the calmest, smallest communities, a place revered by Buddhists the world over, next door to the holiest and most chaotic Hindu place of worship; in a nation with many poor people, an ill Canadian is treated by a doctor, free of charge. Had we stayed with our original plans, Sarnath might only have been a short stop on our route; such is India and we are thankful for the week that wasn’t.