Hinduism, and so India, had begun to make sense to our group thanks to plentiful immersion and instruction. We had started to understand this colorful country and its colorful religion as we left Varanasi for Bodhgaya. But since the nature of seeing the world is surprise after surprise, we were thrown for a loop as we arrived in this new city of Buddhism, where the Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment. Instead of the familiar portraits of Hindu Gods Shiva and Vishnu, we faced statues of Buddha and seas of monks.
Our group was overjoyed to find ourselves in the company of smiling monks as we stayed for three days at a beautiful Tibetan Buddhist monastery. We encountered monks everywhere: in their temples, in restaurants, and haggling alongside us in English for lower prices at Indian street shops. Being in Bodhgaya gave our group its first taste of Buddhism, with opportunities to visit temples of Burmese, Tibetan, and Thai origin, just to name a few. It also meant a trip to the Maha Bodhi Temple, a grand and ornate place which is visited by folks from all over the world who come to see the holy Bodhi tree under which Prince Siddhartha Gotama sat thousands of years ago, and became "the Buddha".
We also arrived in Bodhgaya just in time for Holi, the festival of happiness. Little did we know that Holi is also the festival of throwing remarkable amounts of colored powder and water at unsuspecting tourists who naively thought that they would make it through the day with the same color shirt they started with.
On Holi, our group took a bike adventure towards the Buddha Cave, where Gotama Buddha is said to have sat in meditation. We had an unpredictable, splendid and unforgettable adventure, which inclued a moment of worry when Hava's bike chain split and fell off of her bike in the middle of a small village…but not to fear! Our fearless leader Topher was there to save the day by fixing her chain using his two hands and a nearby rock. Some of the village people seemed to think this spectacle was the funniest thing they had ever seen. They also took our stop as an invitation to being dumping colored water on us. Though we never quite made it to the Buddha Cave, we managed to circle the entire small mountain range which holds the cave, and ride through several Holi parades that showered our whole crew in colors galore. The trip ended with all of our bikes roped to the top of a lone rickshaw, with all of us smushed together inside. Although the trip didn't go quite the way we planned, I wouldn't have had it any other way.
The rest of our time in Bodhgaya was peaceful, and we made our way via overnight train to the city of Kolkata. Kolkata is another absolutely unique city. It is busy, loud, and lively, filled with endless street peddlers and food carts, as well as fully Westernized malls and movie theaters. Every morning, we wake up early and walk to the Mother Teresa home, where we each volunteer until noon at one of the various homes founded by Mother Teresa herself. These volunteer houses include a hospice-center, a home for handicapped women, and home for handicapped children.
It has been profoundly humbling to be able to share time and space with the residents, patients, other volunteers, and nuns. I am beginning to feel sure that none of us will walk away from this experience unmoved or unchanged. Each day we choose to face both immense joy and immense challenge. As one of my old friends once said, "struggle is a companion of passion, The two need each other to exist." And here we are, submerged deep in both and so much better for it.