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Bodhgaya, Bihar, India

I’ve just been out for something to eat after alternating between lying in bed and sitting in the bathroom next to a bucket for the past 24 hours. I don’t know if it was something I ate – maybe some grapes which I bought from a stall and didn’t wash, or the puri I had for lunch, or some dodgy water. I always drink bottled water but sometimes wonder if they refill the bottles with tap water. It started at about 5pm yesterday with stomach pains as I walked back to the guest house. The Laxme Guest House. It looks like it’ll be a nice place when they finish building it. My room has a private bathroom with some hot water – a trickle, a balcony – really just a ledge since they haven’t put the fence up yet. It looks out onto a swamp which is home to boars.

I took an overnight train from Kolkata to Gaya, travelling 2nd sleeper class. You get a bed but no sheets and since there are no luggage racks you have to put your baggage on the bed, which isn’t very big. They really cram people in. Three stories of beds. I didn’t get much sleep, but it was bearable. I thought the train was due to arrive at 6.30am but at 5am we stopped and everyone in my carriage was getting off. I asked someone where we were. Gaya. My stop. I grabbed my bags, my inflatable pillow and my towell and got off. There was nothing on the platform to indicate which station this was. I asked some army guys but they ignored. I asked someone at a chai stall and he confirmed that this was Gaya, and then I asked someone else just to be sure.

Leaving the station I was descended upon by auto-rickshaw and taxi driver touts. The first guy, with an auto-rickshaw, wanted 150 Rupees to take me to Bodhgaya. I told him that was too much and sat down and lit a cigarette. The taxis wanted 225. I told them I was just going to sit here for a while. I’d just woken up and was in no hurry. Later I walked across the car park and was approached by more touts. The price was now down to 100, and then 80. Getting to the edge of the car park I had a load of them around me. I got them to haggle amongst themselves and the price came down to 50, and then someone offered 20, but the others said he’s a crook, don’t go with him. He’s offering the cheapest price, so I went with him as far as an auto-rickshaw loaded up with about 8 passengers and just one tiny seat left. I couldn’t see where I’d put my bags so I walked away and went with one of the ones who’d quoted 50. But once in there they drove a little way and then stopped to try and pick up more passengers. I said if they were going to load the thing up with more passengers then I wasn’t paying 50. I asked them to stop to let me out but they kept driving. There were two of them. They agreed to take just me, no other passengers.

We drove along unmade roads, dodging cyclists, cows, goats, dogs, children. Though it was not yet 6 o’clock everyone seemed to be awake. Out of the town and fields on either side of the road, past mud huts, a line of women carrying sticks.

The rickshaw drivers recommended a guest house in Bodhgaya. I normally wouldn’t accept such a recommendation since they get commission so aren’t necessarily showing you the best place, and if you’re brought by them the guest house will up the price to cover their commission. But I said they could show me the place and I’d take a look at it. Bodhgaya is a small town so wherever they dropped me I knew it would be easy enough to walk around to the other places.

But the guest house seemed okay. They wanted 150 Rupees a night, which seemed pretty reasonable, and the third room they showed me had a balcony and a private bathroom, so I went for it. I just didn’t notice that the room didn’t have a light bulb or a fan – just cables coming out of the wall. I only noticed that yesterday evening but by then I was feeling too ill to mention it. Now I have. I have a light bulb and a portable air conditioner that two guys wheeled in and filled with several buckets of water. It’s a bit noisy, but good to have. Could’ve done with it last night.

Yesterday morning after checking in I went out for a walk. The guest house is in a poor area of town. Down a road with a mixture of brick houses and makeshift shacks. Kids playing among the goats and boars. On the main road a guy from a chai shop invited me to have a chai with him. He said he likes speaking English, but I didn’t feel like a chai. I said maybe on the way back I’d have one. A little way further along a couple of kids joined me. The smaller one did most of the talking. He spoke good English. The pointed out the various temples and then took me to one temple that was tucked away down a side street. We had to take off our shoes before going in. The smaller kid, who’s name was Amar, had no shoes. He was nine. His friend, who also spoke good English, was ten. When I complimented him on his English he said that education was very important. Education makes you a big man.

In the temple a guy was chanting in front of a shrine. It was hard to tell whether it was a buddhist or a hindu temple. The kids told me it was buddhist, but there were pictures of hindu gods: Rama, Shiva and a picture of Mahatma Gandhi, who the older kid, Raoul I think he said his name was, said was his guru. Upstairs there was a monkey on a chain. When it saw us it seemed to get a bit freaked out and started doing back flips. The kids said he was happy. A monk brought him a piece of potato. I asked the kids what the monkey was doing there but couldn’t get a definite answer. They kept saying he was happy. But why is he chained up? If he wasn’t chained he would run away.

Leaving the temple, putting my sandals on, I was asked to give a guy sitting by the shoes a baksheesh for looking after them. All I had on me was a 20 Rupee note so I give it to him. Why did you give him so much? You should’ve just given him 5 Rupees.

Walking back through town the kids started talking about their school. How they needed books for their school. Some kids in school uniform passed us. Why were they going to school when you’re not at school today? Our school is closed today. The teachers are having a meeting. They started pressuring me to buy them school books. The older kid said he needed a book for his exams. A Hindi-English dictionary. Only 800 Rupees. Instead I bought some fruit and shared it with them. They seemed to be quite hungry. But afterwards they returned to the subject of their school books. I said if I was going to give money to a school then I’d want to see the school first, but the “if” got lost somewhere in translation. You can come and meet our teacher. He’s in the internet cafe. I thought you said the teachers had a meeting today. No, our teacher is in the internet cafe. If you don’t believe us you can ask our teacher. I said no, I wanted to go and have a lie down, but maybe later I’d be going on the internet.

As we walked back to my guest house some more kids joined us, but there seemed to be some friction between them, and later there was a bit of a fight between Amar and one of the new kids. I had to pull them apart. I was told by another kid on a very nice looking bike (he offered to sell it to me for 2000 Rupees) that the fight was over 2 Rupees, so if I wanted to I could stop the fight by paying 2 Rupees. I didn’t. Amar asked me not to talk to other children. They’re not our friends, he said. I got the impression though that the fight was over who had found me and who had the right to get whatever money I was going to give. Like cats fighting over a mouse.

They showed me a short cut to the guest house, through peoples’ yards, ducking under washing lines.

It was 9 o’clock. After sleeping for six hours I went back out, ate a puri (vegetable curry with pastry bread) then went to a small cramped internet place. As I was paying I noticed Amar and Raoul standing outside. They asked me if I was going to meet their teacher now. No thanks. But you promised. No I didn’t. I couldn’t remember exactly what I had said, but was pretty sure I hadn’t promised anything, and now I was feeling ill and just wanted to get back and lie on my bed. They walked with me, and passing a book shop they said I could buy their book there. Only 800 Rupees. Amar was also saying that he needed rice. His family had run out of rice and they had nothing to eat. His father was ill so he couldn’t work. He used to be an auto-rickshaw driver. Just 10 Rupees for a kilo of rice. I said no. Then Raoul went back onto the school books. I tried to tell them that I thought it was the school’s responsibility to raise money for books, but they didn’t understand. Amar said if he asked for money he would get hit. He insisted that he wasn’t a beggar man.

Halfway down the road to my guest house they gave up, realizing that they weren’t going to get anything out of me. They turned around and walked away.

Today I saw the other kids. One of them was selling CDs of buddhist chants, but he complained that none of the tourists wanted to buy them and he was hungry. He showed me his stomach and tried to cry. They asked me to buy them some mo-mos. I’m not sure what mo-mos are, but whatever they are they’re 10 Rupees each. Instead I bought some oranges and gave them one each, and kept one for myself. One of the kids was still trying to get me to meet his teacher but I said a very definite no. I think before I was too vague. I told them that I didn’t find their stories consistent. Looking at the chant CDs which were priced at 160 Rupees, I asked him how much profit he made on each CD. One of the other kids said he bought each CD for 155 Rupees, so I suggested that selling these CDs wasn’t a very good business. But someone else said he bought them for 90. He then offered to sell them to me for 100 each. I said no. The kid with the nice bike said name your price. I said I didn’t want them. But how much do you want to pay? I don’t want to pay anything because i don’t want them.

After eating a special tomato soup (tomato soup with tofu and various other things in it) I went into the Mahabodi temple, the place where Buddha achieved enlightenment. The kids didn’t follow me in there.

I walked back alone, stopping at a shop to buy things I didn’t really need. I wanted water but only had a 500 Rupee note on me and thought I can’t just buy water and expect the guy to change a 500, so I got a orange juice type drink, some biscuits and some cigarettes. The biscuits wouldn’t fit in my bag so I carried them. Outside the guest house some local kids, three girls, spotted the biscuits and mobbed me. Give me two, the oldest one demanded. I gave them one each, thinking I should also offer to pay for their dental fees. As I turned to go into the guest house one of the smaller ones came up to me and showed me her empty hands, suggesting I’d forgotten to give her a biscuit. But I was sure I’d given out three and they’d each got one.