Well, not Slough exactly. The parish of Colnbrook with Poyle, Slough. The Holiday Inn Express London — Heathrow T5. A boring hotel near the airport.
I’m flying off to Italy tomorrow morning, and I have to be at the airport before 5 AM. So Calvin — very thoughtfully — found this hotel and booked me a room for my last night in the UK. I’m excited about tomorrow’s flight, but I’ll be travelling by train for a few hours afterwards, and I won’t be arriving in Sorrento until the afternoon. So a boring hotel is just the sort of place I need to be to chill for a few hours. Gotta get into a state of mind where I won’t get cross tomorrow when I inevitably get lost at some point.
This is my first post, even though I arrived in the UK nearly two weeks ago. Normally I blog when I’m travelling alone, so that I have a record of the trip to read later. But the last two weeks (or so) I’ve just been too busy.
I don’t really want to write about it all yet. But I had the best time. I stayed with Joe and his partner Mark in Eastbourne: I’ve been chatting with Joe daily since October 2020, and I finally, finally got to meet him in person. We recorded 11 podcast episodes together — including the latest episode of Untitled Star Trek Project. And we just hung out — eating, wandering around, climbing up Beachy Head, watching telly, talking. And we did some touristy things too. A pilgrimage to Leeds Castle, where The Androids of Tara was filmed in 1978. A trip to the Fitzroy Tavern in London to catch up with some Who fans and podcasting friends. A hilarious last night where we went to the theatre to see the new production of Relatively Speaking by Alan Ayckbourn.
Joe wasn’t the only friend I met in person for the first time: there was also Si, Pete, and Conrad, who I’ve been podcasting and chatting with online for some time now. New people too: Steve, Chris, and Rob Valentine, who listens to FTE and who is very generous in his engagement with us on Twitter. And I caught up with some people I hadn’t seen for a long time: Colin, Angela, and Simon Catterall and his partner Majed (who I was also meeting for the first time).
Huh. I said I didn’t want to write about all this. I think that’s because I don’t think I can satisfactorily express how great it all was, and how grateful I am to everyone I got to see — but particularly Joe and Mark, who were so kind and warm and generous and so much fun to hang out with. I love you all. I can’t wait to see you again (except Colin, who will be here in a couple of hours because he’s flying to Copenhagen tomorrow and staying in this hotel tonight).
I arrived in Sorrento the day before yesterday. This is my third time here. I first came here in 2008 and then again in 2017 (when I stayed for about ten days).
I like Sorrento. It’s a bit touristy, particularly on the weekends, but it’s very pretty and there’s lots of places to eat, to walk, and to sit quietly and read. And it’s close to other things, like Capri, Pompeii and Herculaneum.
This time I’m not going to any of those places. I’m here for two more nights, and I plan to take it very easy. This morning I had breakfast at the hotel, sat at a bar drinking coffee and reading, and then took a walk down the cliff to the marina, followed by more sitting and reading. But then it started raining, so now I’m back in the hotel writing this. If it doesn’t ease up soon, I might start doing some podcast or website things until I head off for drinks and dinner.
Some random thoughts about the trip so far, in no particular order.
I’ve been trying to speak to people in Italian. My knowledge of Italian is more theoretical than practical, so I’m a bit halting and diffident, and people normally leap in to rescue me by responding in English. But I persevere.
I spent my last full day in Eastbourne wandering around while Joe was at work. During my walk, I saw three people with only one leg (each). Mark assured me that this was not something he had ever noticed, so I hope and expect it was all just confirmation bias and that the average number of legs among the population of Eastbourne is only very slightly less than two.
Pasta alla Genovese tastes familiar for some reason, but I have decided never ever to order it again.
Everything is closed in Sorrento in February. This absolutely doesn’t matter to me at all, although I am missing a bar in Tasso Square that I quite liked and a cheap restaurant just outside the centro storico which I visited for lunch the last time I was here.
Italian trains are a bit confusing, and it’s just possible that I paid €13.50 for a €58 trip from Rome to Naples. Don’t tell anyone.
As I said in my previous post, on my last night in Eastbourne, Joe and Mark took me to see Relatively Speaking, an Alan Ayckbourn play first performed in 1967 with Richard Briers and Michael Hordern as the two male leads. The play itself was fun, but Blakes 7’s Steven Pacey and Skippy’s Liza Goddard were both indisposed, and so their parts were (ably) played by their understudies. We had a great time, but I believe I was the third youngest person in the audience: my enjoyment of Act Four was affected somewhat by an apparent incontinence pants incident suffered by the woman sitting immediately to my right.
Angela and I spent a morning at the British Library visiting its Alexander the Great Exhibition. I had no idea that Alexander had had such an eventful afterlife, becoming the hero of a series of romances, including stories of his flight through the air in an engine powered by griffins, his descent to the depths of the sea floor in a glass diving bell, and his encounters with men whose heads do grow beneath their shoulders. Worth a visit if you can get there.
Picks of the day
I’m currently enjoying the podcast If Books Could Kill, in which Michael Hobbes critically revisits the dark side of some of the most famous airport non-fiction of the last few decades, including Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History, Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers and Steven D Levitt and Stephen J Dubner’s Freakonomics. Hobbes is really thoughtful and funny, and he gets extra points for pushing back on Twitter against centrist dunderhead Jonathan Chait’s credulous bullshit take on healthcare for trans children, which was published in The New York Times in the last week or so.
And while we’re on the subject of The New York Times’s appalling coverage of trans issues, here’s The Onion’s take on it — the most blistering satirical article I’ve seen from them in decades.
Hm. It’s stopped raining. Off for a walk. Chat soon.
I’m writing this in the Holiday Inn in Naples, in a large hotel room, in a skyscraper, surrounded by graffiti and urban decay. Calvin booked the hotel for me — using points — after I decided that I would spend my time in Sorrento just relxing and that I would start my sightseeing the following week from Naples. And although this hotel is some distance from Naples’ beautiful centro storico, it’s very close to a train station that will take me wherever I need to go.
After writing my last post, I spent a couple more nights in Sorrento, and then I caught a train to Naples and a ferry to Ischia, which I have wanted to visit for years now. (There are ferries that go directly from Sorrento to Ischia, but they don’t run during February.)
Ischia is a small volcanic island about 10 kilometres across, just off the coast of the Cape of Misenum, at the end of the northern arm of the Bay of Naples. The Romans called it Pithecusa or Pithecusae, a name that includes the nearby islands of Procida and Vivaria. In Metamorphoses Book 14, Ovid says that the island is named after the little yellow apes that were once its inhabitants — formerly a race of people, the Cercopes, whom Jupiter transformed into apes as punishment for their deceit and trickery. (Pliny the Elder says that the island is named after its clay deposits, but that is just the sort of thing that he might be expected to say.) Aeneas stopped on the island on the way to Cumae, according to Ovid, which is why it’s also called Aenaria, a name that it has passed down to a number of thermal spas and restaurants.
It had become apparent during my stay in Sorrento that there’s nothing much open there during February. And so every night I would start wandering around at about half past five, hunting for somewhere to eat. This continued to be a problem when I arrived in Ischia. During my first hunt, I found the Castello Aragonese, pictured above, sitting atop a volcanic plug connected to Ischia by a stone bridge. When I came back to visit the castle the next day, it was closed. The thermal spas were also closed. And the restaurants were closed. The bars were open, for the locals I suppose, and so I was still able to eat bar snacks and burgers and toasted sandwiches, but I couldn’t find anywhere that served the sort of Italian food that was really my main reason for coming to Italy.
Last night, my hunt was successful. I realised a few days ago that I just needed to be more patient: restaurants here don’t really open for dinner until 7 PM, which is more than an hour after I usually eat dinner. So I held off, and was rewarded with the sort of food I had been imagining since I arrived on the island. It was at a restaurant by the port called Pane e Vino, whose owner told me that, while living in London as a young man, he had discovered that Australians are much more fun and relaxed than English people.
Anyway, the upshot of all this is that I’ve walked and read and relaxed and listened to podcasts, but I haven’t actually done any proper sightseeing. So tomorrow I’ll catch the train to Herculaneum, which isn’t closed on Sundays, and then I’ll work out what to do after that. But in the meantime, tonight, in the hotel restaurant, I will be eating pizza.
The first time I came to Naples was in 2008. I didn’t stay there for long: I got off the train at Napoli Centrale, walked a few hundred metres to Napoli Piazza Garibaldi and caught a train from there straight to Sorrento. Maybe thirty minutes tops.
It was the height of the Neapolitan waste management crisis, which had started some time in the 1980s and would continue until about 2011. Pulling into Napoli Centrale, I could see hundreds of black plastic bags piled up beside the railway tracks. A beloved colleague in Grammar’s history department, David Patrick, knew that I wanted to visit Pompeii and Herculaneum and had warned me to avoid Naples at all costs and had advised me to stay in Sorrento instead.
The second time in came here, it was just for a few hours. It was a rainy day in December 2017. I walked from Napoli Centrale to the National Archaeological Museum, spent a couple of hours in the museum, and then walked back again and caught the next train to Sorrento. I didn’t see any black plastic bags, but it was all a bit filthy and run down, and for some reason I never really noticed that even the shabbiest parts of the city have a kind of faded glamour.
I’m in my hotel room in Naples now: after five nights here I will be leaving. I think I said before that Calvin had booked it for me. “Apparently it is not a good and safe area at the holiday inn,” He warned me. I was dismissive: “I’ll be okay. I’ve been to Naples before.”
I really warmed to Naples the last time I came here. It was on the school’s 2019 Classics Tour — the last time I travelled abroad before the pandemic. We stayed in a nice hotel not far from the monument pictured above and a short work from the historic centre of Naples: a maze of cobbled streets full of churches and bookshops and bars and restaurants. It’s grimy and faded and a bit run down, but it’s beautiful as well.
Vastly unlike the historic centre of Naples is the windswept and largely deserted shopping precinct that surrounds this hotel, and the train station that services it. It’s got a real Chatswood-six-months-after-the-Apocalypse vibe. Take a look.
Anyway, I’m actually going to be sorry to leave. The hotel was nice. I did my professionally mandated trips to the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum and to the National Archaeological Museum, and I thoroughly enjoyed them all. And I got to wander the streets soaking up the grimy grandeur of the place. I’ll be back, deo volente.
I’m just finishing a four-night stay in Salerno, just south of the Bay of Naples and north of the Amalfi Coast. It’s mostly been about walking, reading and food, to be honest. I’ll fill you in a bit more later.
I’m checking out of this grimy hotel in just under an hour. Then a walk across town to the bus stop where I’ll be catching a bus for the 3½ hour trip to Matera.
I first learned about Matera a couple of years ago, in a house meeting organised by my colleague Caterina Rupolo. It’s a town with a surprising history and a unique geography; almost as importantly, it was one of the locations used in the most recent James Bond film No Time to Die.
My phone, AirPods and Kindle are all charged, and I’m ready for a long day of looking out the window of the bus at the passing countryside. The worst thing about travelling is the actual going-from-place-to-place part, which I’ve tried to minimise on this trip as much as possible. It makes me cross. But I’ve paid for the ticket, I’ve located the inadequately signposted bus stop, and I’m ready to go.
It’s my last full day in Matera. Gotta get up really early tomorrow morning — well okay, at 7 AM — to get the bus from the other side of town to take me back to the bay of Naples. So, an early night tonight.
Matera is not a big town: located in the arch of Italy’s foot, it’s got a population of about 60,000 people. And it takes about half an hour to drag a heavy suitcase from one side of the town to another, which is what I will be doing first thing tomorrow morning.
In 2014, Matera was declared the European Capital of Culture for 2019. Also in 2019, Daniel Craig came here to shoot a car chase around the streets of the town and a confrontation with one of the three facially disfigured villains in the most recent James Bond film No Time to Die. (They also shot scenes from the risible and horribly blasphemous Mel Gibson film The Passion of the Christ here, but I think we should all just agree as a species to forget about that film completely.)
Those aren’t the reasons I came here, obviously. The real reason — and Matera’s main claim to fame, is the Sassi — a cunningly hidden medieval city which clings to one side of a river valley on the eastern side of the town. All its buildings are constructed from large, soft, yellow blocks of limestone. But the interiors of those buildings — including some churches and monasteries — are limestone caves. Caves which may have had human inhabitants as early as 10,000 years ago.
In 1952, the Sassi were evacuated. They were malarial, and kind of unfit for human habitation. People had lived there for centuries, with no natural light and no ventilation, crowded into the caves with their families and their livestock. But over the last few decades, with the help of the EU and UNESCO, it’s been developed, and now it’s full of small businesses, bars and restaurants.
I arrived at Matera on Monday, after hanging around a bus stop with my suitcase for a few hours and travelling 3½ hours by bus south and east of Salerno. I checked into the hotel at about 7:30, went and grabbed something to eat and then went to bed.
The hotel is like the one in Salerno, only much, much cleaner. There are only four rooms here, and no one on site most of the time. There’s a four-digit code to get into the hotel and another one to get into the room. I think only one of the other rooms is currently occupied.
(This is a much better arrangement than the hotel in Salerno, which I got into using an app on my phone. One day I left my phone in the hotel room and spent an uncomfortable thirty minutes imagining myself sitting phonelessly outside the hotel for hours and hours, hoping someone nice might come by to let me in, only to remember that the keyring with my room key had two other keys on it whose purpose should have been immediately obvious.)
Each day I’ve been here, I’ve got up and wandered through the Sassi all morning, taking photos, searching for an affordable restaurant for dinner that night (unsuccessfully), and trying to find the locations where the Bond movie was shot (successfully, for the most part, although the graveyard isn’t real and that bridge Bond falls from is actually thirty kilometres away in a town called Gravina). I’ve mostly spent my afternoons reading or wandering around the rest of the town listening to podcasts. It’s been nice. Things are a bit expensive here, I think, but the streets are wide and clean and there’s nothing to hinder those who are deep in thought.
After today, there are just over seven days left in this part of the trip. Next Friday, I’ll be flying out from Rome to Delhi, where I will catch up with Calvin, and where the second, much weirder phase of the journey will begin. I’ll catch up with you before then.
Picks of the Day
Fuck waiting until 7:30 for restaurants to open for dinner in Italy. Have a long, boozy lunch instead.
The series finale of The Good Place, Whenever You’re Ready. I watched it last night before bed: fifty minutes of alternately sobbing and laughing out loud. I can’t think of another TV series finale that gets everything so completely right.
Well, I was never going to be able to afford to stay in Positano, of course, so the best thing to do was a day trip. Really, I should have done this when I was staying in Sorrento — it’s a 50-minute bus ride from Sorrento to Positano — but I was still at the very beginning of four whole weeks of travel in Italy, and I didn’t want to fill those weeks up with day trips and activities, to impose any structure or foreclose any possibilities.
I’m nearing the other end of those four weeks now. And I’m pretty happy with the structure that ended up somehow being imposed on those four weeks. Sorrento, Ischia, Naples, Salerno, Matera and Pompei. Four or five nights each. Not spending too much time sitting on trains and buses, lugging the big suitcase around, checking in, checking out.
I decided to stay in Pompei because the bus back from Matera stopped there on the way to Naples. And because I thought it looked pretty when I accidentally caught the wrong train from Naples a couple of weeks ago and ended up at Pompei Santuario instead of Pompei Scavi. I had walked through the town for about a quarter of an hour and entered the archaeological park through the eastern gate near the amphitheatre. There’s a long stretch of road there leading from the main square to the ruins, full of stalls and bars and restaurants catering for tourists, but it has a kind of festival atmosphere, which I think is kind of fun. And, you know, I’m a tourist.
By the time I decided to go to Positano, the four weeks had been completely planned, and my trip to Italy had ended up being four weeks hanging around the Bay of Naples and its immediate environs, punctuated by four nights in Matera. By then, the Amalfi Coast had joined the infinite list of foreclosed possibilities. (Mostly because I had checked out Positano on hotels.com and had decided that it would be unreasonable to spend $400 a night on accommodation at any point during an eleven-week overseas holiday.) Still, I knew it would only take me about an hour and a half to get to Positano, and that would count as having visited the Amalfi Coast.
I literally knew nothing about the Amalfi Coast, apart from its location. I had seen some photos, I think, that made it look roughly like Sorrento, with big hotels perched on cliffs and things. But I had no idea that the towns were built on precipitous hillsides, in places where it would probably have been a lot easier to just take a quick look round and decide to build somewhere else.
I walked down from the bus stop to the beach and sat on a bench on the seafront surrounded by expensive restaurants. And then I climbed back up again. That night, I texted Calvin — “I went to Positano today, which is where we will be retiring to in just a few years” — and seconds later he sent me a link to a 9½ million dollar property that would be just perfect.
I left Pompei this morning, and now I’m in the Holiday Inn Roma — Eur Parco Dei Medici. Just a 15-minute drive from the airport. The day after tomorrow, I’m flying out to Delhi to meet Calvin. But before then, I have a whole day left, and I’m near Rome. I still haven’t decided what to do.
Everyone who’s been into deep space has had the Terran Ague, or the three-day sweats as it’s commonly known. It’s a sort of a mild infection, it slightly alters the body’s nucleic structure, it seems to be a metabolic reaction to space travel.
— Doctor Bellfriar, Blake’s 7, Series B, Episode 7, Killer
I arrived in Delhi on Saturday morning.
The flights overnight from Rome were lovely, of course, but I lost 4½ hours travelling east and the final leg was only 3 hours long, so I had had only about an hour’s sleep. But, you know Calvin, it was straight to business. I had a quick shower and we were picked up from the hotel almost immediately by the tour guide, Aditya from Food Tour in Delhi.
Aditya was a funny and cheerful young man. He had been a chef, and so he was able to explain to us what we were eating and even to predict with accuracy how our taste buds would respond to different foods in different combinations. We started in Old Delhi, which is gloriously squalid and crowded, trying food from stalls and restauarants, and even a coffee house run by generations of a Jain family whose specialty was a kind of fruit sandwich with cheese, which taste like a light and delicate cake.
Six hours later, the tour had finished and we went back to our grimy hotel. I feel asleep immediately, but Calvin woke me up a couple of hours later for even more food.
You can probably tell where this is headed.
The next day, our proper tour started, which will take us from Delhi to Kolkata, via Rajasthan and the four major Buddhist pilgrimage sites. Calvin has organised it all — every night’s hotel is booked, every day is accounted for, there’s none of my hippie fear of foreclosing possibilities. This tour is serious business.
We met our tour guide for the day and our driver for the next three-and-a-bit weeks, and we headed off into Delhi. Another less food-oriented tour of Old Delhi, the Jama Mosque, Humayan’s Tomb, the ruins of the Qutb Minar complex, and the Shri Laxmi Narayan Temple.
I had already had an unfortunate gastrointestinal incident before leaving the hotel that morning, and by the time the day’s sightseeing was nearing its end I was increasingly, urgently keen to return to the hotel. I’ll spare you any details, but I was unable to muster any enthusiasm about the Rajasthani restaurant we went to for a dinner consisting of tiny metal cups of delicious things on a giant metal tray full of even more delicious things. And by the time we got back to the hotel after that, the Terran Ague had hit me full force. I spent an unpleasantly acidic night, sweating and shivering in the bed and waking up dehydrated every couple of hours.
Naturally, Calvin had come prepared with as much gastro-stop as I could possibly want — certainly enough to get me through today’s six-hour drive without any horrifying incidents.
Tonight, we’re staying at the Vivaana Heritage Hotel, which is a restored nineteenth-century haveli, a merchant’s house lavishly decorated with frescoes and carvings. And if I make it through dinner, there’s an evening of traditional puppetry, storytelling and folk music, which I’m hoping will be tolerable. Before that, though, a nap, I think.
Since my last post, we have driven 1,125 kilometers across Rajasthan. We’ve stayed in Bikaner, Jaisalmer (two nights) and Jodhpur, and now we’ve arrived in Udaipur, where we will be staying for two nights before leaving for Jaipur.
It’s all been a bit of a blur, really. Lots of checking in and out of hotels, lots of driving through the countryside, and lots of temples, cenotaphs and forts. Here is a random selection of salient observations. (I’m allowing myself one post in this format for each leg of the trip.)
After a couple of days’ grace, the Terran Ague has returned with a far more brutal and upsetting assault than before. Indescribable. I suspect that it was a mistake to have a few vegetarian meals at local eateries over the last two days, but Calvin doesn’t want to feel like a tourist, and he is thrilled by the prospect of paying only one or two hundred rupees for a meal. In any case, I’ll be living on electrolytes, muesli bars and prayer for the next few days.
Jaisalmer is a very beautiful place. It’s in the middle of the desert, not too far from the border with Pakistan, and it’s full of yellow sandstone buildings, including a massive old fort on the top of the nearest hill housing about 3,000 regular residents.
Just before our arrival in Bikaner, we visited the Karni Mata Temple, a Hindu temple that is home to tens of thousands of rats. Walking through the temple barefoot was certainly a thing that I remember doing. Our driver told us that the Italian tourists he had taken there didn’t really appreciate it. “Tanti topi,” they would cry, apparently.
Calvin has been assiduous (some people might say annoying) in his effort to capture every moment of the trip with his little point-and-shoot camera. I can’t possibly post all his photos here, but you can find them on Facebook, and I’ll be downloading them to my photo library when I get home.
More than one of the hotels we’ve stayed in was actually part of a palace complex owned and inhabited by members of one of the royal families. In Bikaner, this was the Hotel Lallgarh Palace, which actually seemed a little bit run down and sad, in part because its corridors were adorned with what its website chooses to call “charming sepia photographs and cherished hunting trophies”. In Jaesalmer, it was the Hotel Mandir Palace, which is ornately carved from the town’s yellow sandstone and whose tower is the highest building in Jaisalmer apart from the fort.
Whenever I walk past a dog asleep in the middle of the road, I am compelled to stop for a second to make sure it’s still breathing.
I didn’t know what a haveli was when I wrote my last post from a haveli in Mandawa that had been converted into a hotel. The next morning, our guide (who was a handsome young local who spoke four or five european languages) showed us a dozen of them in Mandawa, and we’ve seen dozens and dozens more of them since. In Mandawa, a local family of artists have been painting frescoes on the havelis for decades; elsewhere, they are decorated with intricate stone carvings.
For the nerds: I was able to correct an error in my previous post from the back seat of the car using my phone’s GitHub app. Editing the file and committing my changes automatically triggered a full site rebuild incorporating my changes. (Those are all meaningful English words.) I am unreasonably excited by this.
As you can see, I have now ridden a camel. I was expecting to be mounted behind an experienced cameleer, but instead I was sat on the camel by myself as it was led along by a small, quiet teenager. Getting on and off is the most unsettling part: camels stand with their back legs first and sit down with their front legs first, so you have to hold on tight to the saddle and lean backwards to avoid faceplanting into the camel’s neck or (more likely) just completely falling off the bloody thing. Camels are grumpy and obnoxious, but really, who can blame them?
We’re in Udaipur now. Taking it easy, thank God. And tomorrow is all sightseeing and very little driving, which will be nice. I’ll catch you all again in a few days.
Just got back from lunch: we’re hanging out in the hotel room until dinner, relaxing for a while before the onslaught tomorrow.
The hotel room is in the Radisson Lucknow City Centre, a hotel which is only a couple of decades old, but which has been really letting itself go. There’s a lot of miserable dark wood panelling on every wall. The doors on Level 7 have signs indicating that it’s a non-smoking floor, but judging by the smell of the corridor, they were hastily put up less than a week ago. The Samsung TV comes complete with an LG remote, there’s no bath towels in the bathroom (which I discovered when I got out the shower), and the fridge doesn’t work, or didn’t until a nice man came to the door to fix it at about 11 o’clock last night. Oh, and it sounds like the toilet’s leaking.
Anyway, we’re not in Rajasthan any longer. We’re in Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh, which is a state larger and a bit poorer than Rajasthan. After Udaipur we went to Jaipur, and after Jaipur we went to Agra. And after Agra, here.
Our sightseeing has continued much as before, but the pace has slowed. So, we do a long day of driving, followed by a night at the hotel, followed by a day of forts and palaces and things, followed by a second night at the hotel, followed by another long drive to the next destination. Sometimes we visit something on the way. A fort, usually.
My Terran Ague, which is now under control, thank you for asking, prevented me from engaging in the sightseeing in Udaipur and Jaipur. Fortunately, though, I was able to enjoy Agra, where the Taj Mahal is to be found, but where there are also two forts to visit. The first fort is Agra Fort, not far from the Taj Mahal: it was built by the Mughal king Akbar in the sixteenth century as the capital of the empire. Before it was finished in 1573, Akbar had moved his capital to the second fort, Fatehpur Sikri, in order to be near the Sufi saint Salim, who predicted the birth of his first son Jahangir, whose son Shah Jahan would go on to build the Taj Mahal.
Calvin complains that there have been too many forts over the last two weeks, and there’s something to be said for that, but each of them has been huge and beautiful, and I would have been sorry to miss any more of them than I already did.
But basically, we’re done with forts. Out for dinner tonight, and then tomorrow morning we’re leaving the forts behind.
First stop: Shravasti, a pilgrimage site marking a location where the Buddha delivered many of his suttas and performed two miracles. After that, we will drive to Lumbini in Nepal, staying there the night, and then visiting the site of the Buddha’s birth, at the Maya Devi Temple. Over the next week we will be visiting all four of the most important Buddhist pilgrimage sites, as well as some ancillary sites nearby.
Both Calvin and I have been looking forward to this for a long time. I’ll let you know how we get on.
“Ānanda, there are these four places that merit being seen by a clansman with conviction, that merit his feelings of urgency & dismay. Which four? ‘Here the Tathāgata was born’ is a place that merits being seen by a clansman with conviction, that merits his feelings of urgency & dismay. ‘Here the Tathāgata awakened to the unexcelled right self-awakening’.… ‘Here the Tathāgata set rolling the unexcelled wheel of Dhamma’.… ‘Here the Tathāgata totally unbound in the property of unbinding with no fuel remaining’ is a place that merits being seen by a clansman with conviction, that merits his feelings of urgency & dismay.”
Mahā Parinibbāna Sutta, chapter 5
On the second day of the Buddhist leg of our Indian trip, we arrived in Lumbini in Nepal. I’ve rarely crossed an international border except in an airport — or in the European Union. (I have dim memories of driving through the Alps with Robert maybe twenty-five years ago and insisting that the Italian border officials stamp my passport as a souvenir.) This time, we had to visit two very rundown offices, one in India and one in Nepal, where the entire process was mediated through ancient malfunctioning computer equipment. And I think the driver may have had to bribe an angry guy. But we made it. A day trip to Nepal, back to India the next day.
Lumbini is one of the four major pilgrimage sites that the Buddha tells Ānanda about in the sutta quoted above. It’s ‘Here the Tathāgata was born’. I had seen images and video of the site before. But a lot of money has gone into the site over the past few years, and so it’s no longer the dustbowl I had been expecting. In fact, it’s been transformed into a beautiful garden.
Like most major religious figures, the Buddha had a fairly remarkable birth.
From the solid earth sprung beautiful lotuses, the nature of vajra.
They appeared auspiciously where the Guide placed his wheel-marked feet.
He took seven steps and spoke with a melodious voice like Brahmā’s:
“I will be a perfect being, a sublime physician who cures old age and death!”
Lalitavistara Sūtra, chapter 7
The Buddha’s mother Māyā was travelling from her home to her father’s home for the birth, carried on a palanquin. She stopped to take a walk in the shade of a sal tree. She gave birth holding on to one of its branches, and the baby “emerged from his mother’s right side, fully aware and mindful”. He took seven steps, and a lotus bloomed from each of his footfalls. He pointed at the sky and said his first words.
The place where the Buddha was born is marked by a tree, a pond, and an unimpressive low brick building painted white, with casement windows along each wall. There’s a square parapet on top. It merely exists to shelter the main attraction: the remains of a temple built by King Ashoka, who visited and adorned the Buddhist pilgrimage sites in the third century BCE, and who is credited with the spread of Buddhism beyond the region where the Buddha lived and taught.
In fact, it’s because of Ashoka that this place is confidently identified as Lumbini. In front of the white building is a three-metre pillar, carved out of a single stone, with an inscription in the Brahmi script, saying that this spot is Buddha Shakyamuni’s birthplace, that Ashoka made and erected the pillar, and that he freed the village of Lumbini from its taxes, or at least from most of them. The pillar had been known of for years, but the inscription was only rediscovered in 1896.
Before going to the site, we spent a couple of hours being driven around the area to the north in a tuk-tuk. There’s a lot of construction going on, and the drive was very rough, but it’s going to be a lot easier to visit in a few years’ time. The whole area is full of temples, including one constructed by Nepalese Buddhists, but there are Thai temples, Lao, Japanese, Burmese, Tibetan — even French and German temples. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a “site of cultural and natural heritage […] considered to be of outstanding value to humanity”.
Then the Blessed One, emerging from the cessation of perception & feeling, entered the dimension of neither perception nor non-perception. Emerging from that, he entered the dimension of nothingness… the dimension of the infinitude of consciousness… the dimension of the infinitude of space… the fourth jhāna… the third… the second… the first jhāna. Emerging from the first jhāna he entered the second… the third… the fourth jhāna. Emerging from the fourth jhāna, he immediately totally unbound.
Mahā Parinibbāna Sutta, chapter 6
The Mahā Parinibbāna Sutta tells the story of the Buddha’s parinibbāna, his Total Unbinding, which took place here in Kushinigar when he was eighty years old. There are several sites connected to this event.
The first one we visited contained the remains of a massive stupa — a burial mound faced in stone or brick — the site where the Buddha’s body was cremated, built over some of his ashes.
The second was a temple constructed during the Gupta period (between the fourth and seventh centuries CE), which contains an ancient statue of the Buddha reclining, carved from a single block of red sandstone (since broken into three pieces somehow and covered in gold foil by worshippers). Our guide encouraged us to look at the statue from different angles: looking along from the feet, he said, it looks like a dead body, from the top it looks like the Buddha is deep in contemplation, and from beside his face you can just discern a satisfied smile.
Behind the temple is a tall hemispherical stupa, built originally by King Ashoka in the third century BCE. Both the temple and the stupa were renovated extensively during the time of Nehru. They are surrounded by the ruins of monasteries.
And finally, across the road is the Matha Kuar Shrine. A small temple, containing a three-metre golden Buddha, marking the source of the Buddha’s last drink of water before his Total Unbinding. It’s adjacent to the usual ruined monastery.
Calvin and I were the only foreigners here. At Lumbini, there were monks sitting around the sal tree — we even had a hilarious chat with one of them. (He gave us his card.) There were young people prostrating themselves before the stone that marks the exact site of the Buddha’s birth. And there was a small group of devotees chanting melodiously outside the temple. But at Kushinagar, all of the visitors were local, and only one young man kissed his hand and touched the foot of the reclining Buddha.
Anyway, we’re tired, and both a bit run down from a persistent cough which is probably not Covid. So we’ve retired early to our hotel room for a break and a nap before dinner.
We arrived at Bodhgaya on Thursday evening; we woke up hungry on Friday morning, ready to travel to the Mahabodhi Temple Complex. But by the time we reached the hotel’s breakfast room, there was nothing left to eat — the breakfast buffet had been cleared out by a group of hungry Sri Lankan pilgrims who had arrived the previous night, woken up that morning at 4 AM, gone downstairs for breakfast, and then gone off to visit the temple complex themselves.
The Mahabodhi Temple Complex is another of the four places that merit being seen by a clansman with conviction: it marks the site where the Buddha was enlightened. The first temple there was built by King Ashoka in the third century BCE; the current temple dates from the fifth or sixth centuries CE. It’s a brick temple, not large, decorated with ornate carvings. Inside is a small chamber, large enough for a few dozen people. There’s an altar table, and an image of Buddha in a glass case. He’s making the bhūmisparśa mudra, his left hand in his lap palm upwards, his right hand touching the ground, calling on it to witness the insight he has gained. (Although it’s hard to see this, as the statue has been draped in golden cloth; we watched this happening when we were inside the temple.)
Outside the temple is an enclosure marked off by a stone fence. Inside that fence is a bodhi tree, with a complex history linking it to the original bodhi tree that the Buddha himself sat under. There is also a short walking path marked with stone lotuses, set there by King Ashoka to mark the Buddha’s footsteps.
The enclosure is part of a bigger precinct. Inside are stupas and trees and walkways. On one wall is a series of golden plates containing the text of the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra, and opposite them are a series of prayer wheels inscribed with Tibetan script. A gate leads out to a pool, with a statue of the Buddha meditating, protected from a thunderstorm by a giant cobra, the naga-king.
Calvin wanted to make an offering to the statue in the temple — a bowl of honey from his own hives and some kheer, a kind of rice pudding provided to the Buddha by a farmer’s wife called Sujātā, ending his six years of ascetic practice. He searched the markets of Patna for vessels appropriate for the occasion, ordered the kheer from the hotel, and filled and packed the vessels. When we arrived he quickly joined the queue to enter the temple to make his offering. Once the offering was complete, he searched the entire precinct, looking for stuff to photograph. He had lots to do.
Of all the Buddhist sites we’ve visited (and it’s been many more than just this main four), this one was the most alive. There were hundreds of people in the precinct — many of them monks and nuns, many tourists, locals, and groups of pilgrims in special outfits, arriving by bus, like our Sri Lankan friends. Rows of monks sat ouside the stone fence chanting. Others sat inside the fence, retracing the Buddha’s steps. Some visitors were carefully following a series of signs, directing them to contemplate the seven weeks the Buddha stayed here after his enlightenment and the seven different activities he performed.
But despite the business and the crowds and the activity, it was not impossible to take a few minutes to sit quietly and watch and think.
We came back again later in the evening. It was less crowded, and just as beautiful, but in a different way. Calvin had more photographs to take.
And when the Blessed One had set the Wheel of Dhamma in motion, the earth devas cried out: “Near Vārāṇasī, in the Deer Park at Isipatana, the Blessed One has set in motion the unexcelled Wheel of Dhamma that cannot be stopped by contemplative or brahman, deva, Māra, or Brahmā, or anyone at all in the cosmos.”
The Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (SN 56:11)
The Buddha travelled from Bodhgaya to a place near Varanasi called Deer Park, or Sarnath. That’s where he preached his first sermon, the sermon in which he first conveyed his insights to his five disciples. It’s an event called Setting the Wheel of Dharma in motion; it’s described in the Sutta quoted above.
We visited Sarnath yesterday. It’s an archaeological site: there are the usual brick remains of monasteries and temples and votive stupas all over the park. The most salient feature is another giant stupa, the Dharmek stupa, which over 40 metres high. Its base was built by King Ashoka, but built and rebuilt over the centuries to reach this height. It marks the place where the Buddha preached that first sermon.
It was Easter Saturday, so there were a lot of people there. But most of them were tourists or locals, and the site lacked the vibe of the Mahabodhi Temple Complex, the feeling a you get at a place that has been animated by millions of visiting worshippers over hundreds of years.
Still, it’s a beautiful site in its own way, and over the fence you can still see some deer — I would have been deeply disappointed if there had been no deer left. And there’s a small museum containing artefacts found during the excavation of the site, including the capital of an Ashokan pillar, beautifully preserved and polished, whose iconography has been adopted as a representation of India itself.
As we were leaving, our friends the Sri Lankan pilgrims arrived in their bus, after travelling more than eight hours to get here. By now, some of them were probably hungry.
That’s the end of our week-long tour of major Buddhist pilgrimage sites. This morning we went to the Ganges to watch a Hindu ceremony before taking a boat ride along the river and seeing how cremations are performed. Tonight, back to the Ganges for one last look.
Rajendra has told us that we’re going to the river twice today. Once in the morning, once in the evening. In the morning, we will be rowed down the river; in the evening, we will watch a Hindu ceremony.
We get up at 5 AM. There’s already traffic on the road, but not much. (During the day, the traffic in Varanasi is worse than any traffic we’ve ever seen, even in New Delhi.) The only people walking along the street at the time seem to be Muslim men, on their way to morning prayer, I suppose.
Calvin, Rajendra and I leave the car with Pappu and walk a couple of kilometres to the river. We are at a place called Dashashwamedh Ghat. Wide concrete stairs lead from the road all the way down to the water. By the time we get there, there is a bit of a crowd, nothing big. But some ceremony is already underway. A handsome young man, a Brahmin priest, is standing under a metal frame; he has an oil lamp which looks like a snake looming over a fire, and he is waving it around. Some bells dangle from the frame, and a man is pulling on a rope to ring them. They ring at a frequency that sets something vibrating uncomfortably below my right ear, and I have to stick my pinky finger in my ear to stop it. Down at the river, people are stripping off to bathe in the water.
After watching the young man for a while, we follow Rajendra down the steps to the river and walk across a few small wooden boats before reaching a boat with one occupant, who will be rowing us across the river. We get in. Rajendra gives us each a small basket containing some flowers and a small candle. During the ride we will light the candles, make a wish and set the baskets to float on the surface of the water. I can’t remember if I made a wish at all, but I do remember wondering about the content of Calvin’s wish.
Rajendra points out the other ghats along the bank of the river. A ghat is a site where a cremation takes place. Dashashwamedh Ghat, where we embarked, is the most important of ghat, but there are other ghats all along the river.
We travel down the river and part of the way back. We disembark and ascend to the road above the river and walk among some new buildings — a temple complex, I think. But we stop for a second to look down towards Manikarnika Ghat, where some cremations are taking place. Calvin starts taking photographs, but a young man with an impressive moustache tells him to stop. “Look with your eyes. Camera doesn’t always work. Eyes work all the time.”
After a brief stop to buy essential oils for some reason, we rejoin the car and arrive back at the hotel before breakfast.
We’re picked up from the hotel at 5 PM. As I said, I know that we’re seeing a Hindu religious ceremony, but for some reason I haven’t asked Rajendra for any more information and I have no idea what to expect.
The streets are packed, and we have to walk through a massive crowd for a few kilometres, trying not to lose sight of one another. It’s a diverse crowd: young people, families, old people. Women tend to be wearing traditional clothes, but the men are wearing just about everything. Some people are riding motorcycles through the crowd; other people are making their way through the crowd on tuk-tuks and rickshaws.
Soon we reach Dashashwamedh Ghat. It’s packed with people, thousands and thousands of them. Rajendra leads us into a concrete building and up a flight of steps, where there is a rooftop balcony with rows of plastic seats. We sit down; there are more white people here than usual. On the river is an additional crowd of people, on boats like the one we travelled in this morning. This crowd is massive too — hundreds and hundreds of people
We wait for things to start. Behind us somewhere, the sun has nearly set.
I’m not sure how to tell you what happened next: there’s so much that I don’t understand and can’t confidently describe. There is a band: a pipe of some kind, sitars, a harmonium, drums and bells. There is a singer, but I can’t actually see him. A young man with a beautiful voice. The people recognise the songs, I think. Sometimes they raise their hands and respond, but I’m not sure what they say.
There is a row of mats, seven of them, under the frame where the young Brahmin was standing this morning with his lamp. They are covered with yellow petals, except for the middle one, which is soon covered with pink ones. There is something like a bolster or pillow at the head of each mat (a pulvinar?); on the middle one there is a statue of a god, robed and decorated, and a framed picture hung with garlands of flowers.
By the time the sun sets, there is a young man standing on each mat, like the young man this morning. Each man has a cone-shaped lampstand like a Christmas tree, with 108 individual burning lamps (I learn later). Each man also has a lamp like the man this morning, with the snake looming over a fire. The men lift the lamps in turn, moving in unison while the chanting continues.
On the building to our left, two women are fighting, and the young son of one of them is crying and fanning himself dramatically. This distracts us for a while. But basically everyone is attentive. They are watching the men, listening to the music and occastionally joining in with a response or some rhythmic clapping.
I think I become aware that things are winding up somehow. In any case, after about an hour, Rajendra hurries us off the balcony and down the stairs. Soon all three of us are travelling through a massively thick crowd on a rickshaw, whose driver is able somehow to drag more than a quarter of a tonne of large men through the heaving mass of people.
“Wow,” I say to Rajendra. “That was incredible. What was that?”
He laughs. “I’ll explain it to you in the car.”
The ceremony is called the Ganga Aarti, and it takes place every day after dusk. Tens of thousands of people attend. Varanasi has nearly 100,000 pilgrims a day, and so most of the people attending are tourists from other parts of India. When I asked Rajendra how often a local would attend the ceremony, he laughed again, and said that most locals would only attend if they had a friend or relative visiting Varanasi.
Rajendra said that the purpose of the ceremony was to ask the god to be present in some way — the god of the river or Shiva himself, I wasn’t sure. He said that a similar ceremony is performed behind closed doors in a temple to invite a god to embody itself somehow in the temple’s statues. Or something. I could easily have misunderstood. He said that the people participating raised their hands to receive grace or good vibrations — a blessing.
Anyway, I’ve attended my fair share of religious rituals over the decades, Christian and Buddhist mostly, but I have never seen anything like this. The unity and unanimity. The atmosphere, like a festival or a concert or a religious revival or a dance party. Fire and music and voice, echoing into the surrounding darkness.
In the Mahā Parinibbāna Sutta, the Buddha tells Ānanda that Lumbini, Bodhgaya, Sarnath and Kushinagar are the four places that merit being seen: where the Buddha was born, where he was enlightened, where he set the Wheel of Dhamma in motion and where he was totally unbound. But, of course, there are many more destinations for Buddhist pilgrims than these.
Even in Northern India and Nepal, there are four second-tier pilgrimage destinations. Rajgir, where the Buddha preached at Vulture Peak and where he miraculously calmed an angry elephant who was intent on killing a child. Vaishali, where he spend his last rainy season before his Total Unbinding, and where he was once miraculously fed with honey by a monkey. Shravasti, the site of the Jetavana monastery, where the Buddha spent many rainy seasons preaching and where he proved his credentials to some skeptical religious leaders by performing the Twin Miracle. And Sankissa, where the Buddha descended by ladder from heaven, after spending a rainy season in one of the heavens teaching his deceased mother about the Dhamma.
(We managed to visit the first three of these; the last one is near Agra, I think, but we weren’t really aware of it when we were there.)
But there are other places to visit as well. Kapilavastu, where Siddharta Gautama was brought up in a palace, which he fled in order to become a monk. (There are two Kapilavastus, one in India and one in Nepal, understandably.) The Dungeshwari Cave Temple, where the Buddha spent six years practising asceticism before finally rejecting it. The Matha Kuar shrine, on the spot where Ānanda got the Buddha his last drink of water from a miraculously clear stream. And the Kesariyra Stupa, where the Buddha gave away his begging bowl before going to Kushinagar for the last time.
We’re a long way away from all those places now: we’re in Sri Lanka, with just a few hours to go until our five-day trip is over. But we’ve still been able to visit local Buddhist pilgrimage sites — including some very sacred ones — even though the Buddha himself never came anywhere near here.
According to one story, Buddhism was brought to Sri Lanka in the third century BCE by a son and a daughter of King Ashoka, a Buddhist monk called Mahinda and a nun called Sangamitta. Accompanied by a group of Buddhist monks, they encountered the king and his hunting party in the hills of Mihintale.
After preaching on of the suttas, Mahinda convinced the king of the truth of their religion, and he promptly converted, building Sri Lanka’s first Buddhist stupas and temples in his capital Anuradhapura. Today, 70 percent of Sri Lanka’s population are Buddhists.
Sangamitta brought a sapling of the Bodhi tree from Bodhgaya to Sri Lanka, and today, over two thousand years later, it can be seen among the ruins of Anuradhapura, where it is still an object of devotion for Buddhist pilgrims.
(In fact, the bodhi tree we saw at Bodhgaya is a descendant of this tree, brought from Sri Lanka to India by the archaeologist Major-General Sir Alexander Cunningham, who had a massive role in unearthing many of the sites that I have talked about here.)
So: a story and a physical relic, linking a far distant pilgrimage site to the life of the Buddha himself.
And here’s the story of a second physical relic: a bone from the Buddha’s body that survived his cremation. When Mahinda told his father King Ashoka that there were no relics in Sri Lanka, Ashoka agreed to send over the right collarbone of the Buddha, which was housed in a stupa built for the purpose, the Thuparamaya.
And a third: one of the Buddha’s canine teeth was brought from India and housed in the Abhayagiri Monastery in Anuradhapura. After Anuradhapura was abandoned, it was moved to the new capital Polonnaruwa, where it may have been housed in a round temple whose ruins are still visited by the occasional pilgrim. (It may actually have been housed in a different building nearby.)
Over the centuries, the tooth travelled all over Sri Lanka as political and military events demanded, but it’s now in the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, another former capital of Sri Lanka, which we visited on the first day of our stay here. It’s a beautiful building — a converted palace — and twice a day, patient devotees endure an hour of being squashed together in small rooms, climbing up and down staircases, and politely listening to shirtless locals banging away on very loud drums: they are rewarded with a glimpse of an ornate gold box which may or may not contain the tooth in question.
Bangkok tomorrow. Three nights there, eating and doing Buddhist things, before I catch the plane home on Thursday night. I’ll try and write once more before then.
It’s the last day of this 2½-month overseas trip: by this time tomorrow I will be back in Australia.
We’ve been in Bangkok since Monday, mostly shopping and visiting Calvin’s family monk to get some statues and amulets blessed and to receive a blessing ourselves, which entailed being drenched with a lot of very cold water. (I sometimes just suspect the monk is trolling us.)
I met up with Calvin in Delhi just over a month ago. And I’ve described all of the important things we did on the trip, but there’s still a lot I’ve left out. How much we loved our driver Pappu, who was with us for 23 days in India. Some of the terrible food and terrible hotels we enjoyed. Many many forts and palaces. Driving around lost in the countryside of Bihar because the government had shut down the internet. Getting caught unwittingly smuggling alcohol into our hotel in Patna, a crime which usually doesn’t result in a prison sentence for a first offence. Giving up nicotine replacement therapy. The horrible hotel porter who threatened Calvin because he was unhappy about his tip. Getting our hair cut and being made fun of by two cute young barbers in Jaisalmer. Being sent away from Lumbini by security guards because our car was too big, only to drive past them moments later, triumphantly waving from the back of a tuk-tuk. Trying not to snigger when our tour guide in Jodhpur kept going on about Prince Albert. The guy sleeping in a corridor in Kolkata Airport who I was convinced was dead. Drinking our first lime soda in the baking heat while looking across Jaisalmer from the very topmost point of the fort that overlooks it. Calvin’s realisation about the important role that money plays in organised religion.
Anyway. It’s been fun. Really fun. But I’m ready to come home.