Tag Archives: Dick Jeffrey

9 Playing Tourists

A beautiful dawn in Bihar   




A beautiful dawn in Bihar


Dick had persuaded me to use Chnnu’s car service to do a tour of the local sites. Chnnu owns the tiny Magadh General Store; all shops in Bodhgaya are tiny. The driver Ashok turns up blasting his horn at 5.45 in the morning. Mezz and I were ready but Kylie had a bit of a problem getting it together. She presently crawls into the Sumo jeep with her shoes in one hand and her pillow in the other. We pick up Kathryn at the Root Institute and set off. Rural India had already awaken and attending to the calls of nature in the fields. Mezz, the Aussie cameraman says, “I still can’t work out where the women go to the toilet.” “It bothers you too?” I felt oddly comforted. “I want a cup of tea” whined Kylie who was doing a really bad job of trying to get comfortable.

The Sumo jeep had static benches with no headrests, no shock absorbers, no seatbelts. These shortcomings were compensated with an obnoxiously loud horn that our driver puts to good use. Indians appear to navigate mainly by sound. Ashok uses both the accelerator and the brakes with alacrity and equanimity. After passing through a few horribly dusty towns, we hit the long stretch of road that had more potholes than road. I blew up my neck pillow, put my ear plugs in and tried to relax into it to practice “avoiding the second arrow”.

Bihari potholes, I mean, road

Bihari potholes, I mean, road

Two and a half hours later we pass a sign that read ‘Do not have sex with strangers’ and arrive at a little town where the shops have signs in Japanese and the stonework of yonis and lingams abound. Ashok pulls into a spot under a tree and we slowly unfurl and slide out. Our internal organs feel like they have been rearranged somewhat. Beggars half-heartedly tail us. Accustomed to this we casually stretch our aching parts as we stroll to the Green Hotel for tea and breakfast. Our orders come and Kylie decides that her egg sandwich is foul and feeds it to Mezz. She then orders a Marsala omelette having solicited an ‘all clear’ wrt the omelette from us. Thus satiated, she pulls out a pack of Marlboros. So much for her lectures about brown rice and not poisoning your body with DEET. We argue a little about the virtues of the welfare state.

6 Holi, Holi, Holi, Holi

Dick Jeffrey with his holi makeover

Dick Jeffrey with his holi makeover

The next day, Sunday, which was day 2 of Holi, I had breakfast with Dick, and the 2 Australian film makers, Kylie and Mezz. They had come to shoot a documentary about the school and do a pro bono promo video for would-be sponsors. Check out their videos here. Kylie and Mezz had, last night, in their journalistic enthusiasm escaped into the celebrations with their camera. The scuffle I heard was the staff in a failed attempt to secure them.


Practical, environmental, space saving idea

Practical, environmental, space saving idea

This was a unique opportunity to see a slice of local culture and peek into the homes and lives of real people, not as tourists, but as guests. In the afternoon, the 4 of us and 2 other volunteers at the school went a-visiting for Holi. At the vilage of Amwan, Dick expertly parked the Maruti jeep at the side of the tiny path. He would qualify as a taxi driver even in Jakarta. We stepped around cow patties and goat droppings. The houses here were of bricks and mud bricks. There were also some mud houses. Dung patties were drying on the external walls. They would just peel off or were scraped off when dry. Rajkishore’s was the first stop. We ascended a dark stairwell on to the first floor. It had several rooms leading off an open courtyard. He is the senior teacher at the Maitreya school, and has the aura of a very decent being. He invited us to a delicious lunch of curry and puri, followed by a special holi dish made up pulse and I think, buttermilk. Subsequently, we saw more of this dish than desired. The family came to annoint our foreheads and feet in a brilliant green.


At some point, we visited Soni, a student at the school, a very beautiful girl around 15. She wore a dimpled smile, an apple green dress and her jet black hair in perfect braids. She was very articulate in English and had the sweet, shy manner of a favourite pupil. More green powder on our faces and feet. We sat on a bed in the half covered courtyard. There were 2 other small rooms and an open area that served as bathroom and laundry. I reckon the entire space was about the size of my bedroom in Zurich. They seemed to be humble but dignified people. Both Soni and her sister Khusboo go to the Maitreya school while their brother Arjit does not. There is a policy to take only at most 2 kids from the same family. There are aparently over 600 applications for a kindergarten class of 25. Mind boggling. While Mez is filming, Arjit sulks in the  room with the small tv and a bed. The kids’ father used to own a metal workshop but had to give it up to drive an auto-rickshaw as business was bad. The mom works partime at the school as a craft teacher. There are several village women with tailoring and artisan skills who teach there. We were served simple but lovely food and a very fragrant and immensely sweet chai that the mom was making on the floor in the kitchen corner. The chai, made with tea, boiled milk, butter and a lot of sugar is usually taken in small quantities. It’s beginning to look like there’s a 2-dish minimum, first a sweet and then something spicy. There’s also a tray of little snacks.

Soni and neighborhood kids full throttle

Soni and neighborhood kids on the roof


As we were about to leave, Soni invited us to the roof to enjoy the view of the hills and trees. Trees are good. Trees are scarce here. The roof was reached by a heavy metalwork ladder perched unsecured in front of the open area. My legs turned to jelly on going up and I wondered how the heck I was going to get down. On the roof, patties of dung and straw lay drying on one side. The wheat and rice are dried on the other side away from the fuel. At a sheltered corner, there sat a stove where the remains of a cooking fire quietly rest. Pretty soon neighbours appeared, and a group of determined looking youngsters jumped over the low dividing wall and came at us full throttle to do the colour thing. 


Vanita's backyard

Vanita's pink dogs under the table


At the little hamlet where Vanita (another pupil) lives, we were received in the backyard. Vanita’s grandad, a grand gentleman of 92 came and sat with us smiling his almost toothless smile. The family cows grazed nonchalant while 3 very pink dogs jumped in and hung out under the table. A couple of inebriated uncles hugged and seriously smeared us. A cousin turned up the hindi music. The girls in the family all beautifully dressed in white embroidered salwar kameez shuttled in and out with the tea and other goodies. Around us the paddi fields, with the rice calf high shimmered and swished.


Neigborhood kids enthusiastic about being photographed

At 7.30pm, we pulled up to Achanna’s house. She had been waiting for us all day. She lives in town in a startlingly blue 3 storey brick building in a typical extended family situation. They owned several businesses, which might explain the relative wealth. Her cousin, who was learning Chinese and more than a little drunk started to practise with me. Finally as we were so full we were about to pop (as my nephews would say), Dick made an executive decision and we started to leave. Achanna and her cousin pressed us to come again the next day as the whole family walked us out to the jeep. The neighbourhood show up for a bit of a close up and the kids ask to be photographed. I have to say I was all ‘holi-ed’ out.

4 On Board the Poorva Express

5 March 10.00 pm
The train spent it’s time equally between moving and non-moving. 4 hours into the journey, we are already 2 hours behind. Arjit, a nice young man whose berth is above mine tells me. He hopes to get into NTU, the technical university in Singapore, and eventually end up in the aerospace industry. He’s interesting and well-read, and does not seem like a homicidal maniac. I hope we had not been keeping the other passengers up. The thali dinner arrives after Arjit disembarks. A new passenger for the upstairs berth, a middle aged woman has arrived to plonk herself down at the other end of my berth. She stared at me and I blinked at her. After a couple moments of confusion, all on my part, I decided to let it go, and settled into my thali.

6 March, 6.30 am
After an uneventful night, the lady finally left me to my own devices, I wake to the train stopping at what later turned out to be Varanasi (the previous Benares which was previous to being Benares, Varanasi). The station platform at 6.30 in the morning was drab, teeming as usual. Actually it was more like a war zone– you know when the camera pans across the faces of a sea of refugees? Or is it the annual convention of the rag and bone industry? Jokes aside, I fear I feel ill equipped to step onto this platform come next Friday night. Leaving Varanasi station, the train slithers its way slowly through a decayed ghost town and over the river Ganges. There with its face to the rising sun, the oldest city in India appear to be crumbling slowly back into the river.

Streaky Window View 6 March
Mud bricks drying in the sun. Kilns issuing smoke. Padi fields.
Small hamlet with their livestock. Straw roofs superimposed on crumbling brick walls. Here a
mud hut, there a straw hut, men squatting in the fields mooning the train. A family bathing at the water pump.

More crumbling villages. Faces and clothes smeared with colour, some people evidently got a head start on the Holi festival. Cows lying on their bellies chewing the proverbial cud. Ancient buildings, leaning, crumbling. The train passing the station of Kudra by. Cows grazing on the other track. A train passes us on that track heading for the cows.

Kumehu, another non-stop. No more mooners, the mooning time of the morning seems to be over. The train attendant comes to tell me “next stop Gaya, near about 1 hour”, with a little jiggle of the head and index finger pointing. A flock of sheep newly sheared, a river of sand, fluttering saris crossing it. A crippled man with diminutive legs sweep down the aisle with a coconut broom. He doubles back to beg.

2 stops and “near about 2 hours later” the Indian gentleman in the next compartment announced the station of Gaya. After a whiz around the station dodging beggars and taxi-wallahs, I find the main entrance and there was Dick Jeffrey, the director of the Maitreya School for Universal Education, my host in the realm of the historical Buddha, Bodhgaya.