Arriving as Pilgrims, Not Guests

May 12, 2005

"This a very bad area. Naked people live here. Ten, fifteen of them will attack you at once and take all your stuff away. Everything. And when they see women, they start thinking about other things too. It's a very bad area," a random teenager tells me.

I slow down to make sure Sheetal, Veena and Guri catch up to me and translate some of what this teenager is telling me. All of a sudden, we are all walking together in a bunch, rather fast. :)

How this 19-year-old drunk kid found us, walked 8 kilometers with us, and took us through a bad village, is a trademark trait of this pilgrimage: luck. But I prefer another word: grace.
Last couple days have been rough. From Kayavarhon to Chandod to Tilakwada to Garudeswar, we survive. As the native speaker, it is generally my responsibility to create and sustain random connections to get food to eat, a place to stay, and what not. Ultimately, this is an exercise in letting go, but my ego is so strong that before I submit myself into the hands of the universe, I have to endure a lot of pain, fear, and anguish. Not only am I feeling bad, but I'm afraid that pain will create more problems unless I stay balanced; of course, being afraid is no good either. It's a horrible feeling. Throw in a couple of insults from randoms, couple of bad breaks, hot weather and a dirty, dark, electricity less room for the afternoon, and you are talking a tough day's work.

As we are leaving Garudeswar, I tell Guri, "This is where the real cultivation begins. This is it. Let's make it even more hard core. I don't want a plan B, or a next pilgrimage. I am ready to die now." Guri is facing her own internal challenges, but she smiles at my rants because she knows it's all a reflection of our own thoughts.

On our way out, we buy some tea for random pilgrims who were circum-ambulating the Narmada river, barefoot. The tea stall guy tells us that we have two ways to go -- left or right. "Both will make it, but go left," he tells us. "Why?" I said. "Well, you can go right too, but go left." Huh? But okay.

We go left. We are going to Gora, but we don't know anyone there, don't know how we will get our food tonight, or where we will sleep. In a silent single file line, we walk through the late afternoon hours.

Just then, we see three, slightly shady twenty-somethings on the left. Two of them go into the gully and the other comes towards us. I say hello and try to connect with him, "Hey, how are you?" He nods his head and asks, "Where are you headed?" "Gora. Is this this way?" I reply back. "Oh really? That's where I'm going. Yeah, this way, straight ahead."

The kid looks back for a rickshaw to hop into. It's full, with almost 15 passengers. He tries again but this rickshaw doesn't stop. Almost disgruntled, he keeps walking by my side.

We keep talking. Now, I can clearly smell that he's just had a couple of drinks. We chat about his father's recent death, the odd jobs of working on the farm and delivering milk every morning, his school that's 15 kilometers away, and an upcoming wedding in the village that all 1500 locals will attend.
Soon, he gives up on finding a rickshaw home. He decides to walk 8 kilometers with us!

Over the next hour, we practically become friends. I ask him about his drinking habit; he honestly defends himself, "No this is just on days of celebration. I don't drink everyday." He tells me about his left leg that is broken because he fell off a tree once. "Oh yeah, I would never walk this much. Ever. It's just today, we were talking and I just feel like keeping on going."

At one point, he asks us, "So where exactly are you going in Gora?" I said, I don't know. "Is there a temple where we can sleep outside?" I ask. "No, no. My uncle works at this place called Ashok Vatika. You should go there. They will arrange for everything there," he says, excited that he can help us. "You see, in our village, everyone is really good. You can knock on anyone's door, even at 3AM, and they will host you. This is our culture."

"So what's in Ashok Vatika?" I ask him. He tells that it's a round bungalow where they do some service work. Lots of people can stay there. All of a sudden, I remember a name that was suggested to us a long time ago. "Actually, there is one person we could meet. Joshnaben, I don't know her last name. In fact, I don't know her at all, but I remember her name," I say. "Joshnaben? The nun? Oh yeah, she IS the person who runs Ashok Vatika! I deliver buffalo milk there every morning!"

It turns out that Raju -- we finally exchange names in the second hour of our conversation -- is down with the service scene in the area, partly because of his milk delivery "internship" that he does in the summers. He reminds me of all the names in the area that have been recommended to us by others in the past. It's a pretty darn amazing welcome to an unknown place, by a random stranger.

At one point, our conversation even gets overtly spiritual; very innocently, nineteen year old Raju thinks out loud, "Today, when you need me, I'm here to help. Tomorrow, when I need help, God will send someone for me too." It was almost as if a drunk guy is speaking to himself. I reaffirm his hypothesis: "Raju, of all the things we have talked about, just think of this whenever you think of me -- what you do to others, you are doing to yourself. Be kind and you will receive kindness. Help others, and you will be helped." He nods, and I know he understands. I hug his shoulders from the side, with my left arm, "Buddy, try to drink less too." He nods and smiles.

As we traverse through Kevadiya and surrounding areas, Raju is almost an unofficial tour guide. Or perhaps an official dharma instrument. That's when he tells me about the community of naked natives, that everyone stays away from. He leads us through it; it helps a lot to have a local with you through these areas.

*Right* as we finish crossing that danger zone, all of a sudden, he runs up ahead. "Take the bridge", Raju yells while pointing to the bridge without turning back. He has spotted some friends on a motor bike, so he runs to jump on it and snag a ride, presumably. No goodbyes, no see you later, no nothing. It is almost as if he's scheduled to spend 2 hours, 12 minutes and 32 seconds with us. After that, his time is up and he's outta there.

We head to the round house. At one point, we are lost in the dark with no one to help us. But today, we have no fear; we are feeling lucky. Sure enough, we find the "gol bungalow" and knock on the door. It ends up being a house of pilgrims, many who had walked with Vinoba himself. We had landed up in good hands. We all cook together, at the 8PM hour, and immediately become good friends. It turns out that Joshnaben, whom we were to profile, is there only for that night. She has to leave at 4AM the next morning, but she stays up very late to spend a lot of quality time with us.

At one point, they ask us why we didn't use our connections to announce our arrival, and we said, "We wanted to arrive as pilgrims, not as guests."

Thank you, Universe. I know you are alive.

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