Hello from Alex Gardner, Program Director
Hi everyone. I’ve been able to meet some of you already at the Rubin Museum of Art, and hope to catch up with the rest of the group before we get on our very long flight to India. I am so very eager to join you all in India. I’ve been lucky enough to work for Brad in the past, and from that I know that this trip will be an exciting and intense time. I’m on track to finish my dissertation before we leave. I’m writing on religious geography, revelation, and regional identity formation in nineteenth century Khams (eastern Tibet).
I started traveling in Asia after graduating college. I knew I wanted to visit Buddhist pilgrimage sites, and I knew the names of some of them, but not much more. I got off my one-way flight to Delhi in the evening, the sky was purple and full of bats, and the air smelled like mangos and dirt. I knew nothing except that I wanted to go first to Bodh Gaya, where the Buddha attained enlightenment under the Bo tree, so my first day I went to the train station with my bag and stood amid crowds like I’d never seen before.
Eventually I found a small ticketing agency, they literally pulled me in, put my bag in a corner, took my passport, and for the next several hours I was chauffeured around Delhi on an unasked-for sightseeing trip. I had no idea why it was happening, but I had been told when I returned I would have a train ticket waiting. This was true, and that evening I was on a train to, I thought, Bodh Gaya. Well, there is no such train. I was on a train to Patna, which I had never heard of. I decided that the train must pass through Bodh Gaya, and on the second day asked a fellow passenger to tell me when we reached it. Either as a joke or because he didn’t understand, at one of the dusty little towns the train stopped in the man told me I should get off, which I did. I never learned the name of the town, since no one there spoke English, but eventually a small group of people put on a bus to Gaya, a fairly large city, and a day later I hopped a smaller bus to Bodh Gaya.
It wasn’t until several months later, on my way to Nepal, that I heard of “The Lonely Planet” guidebooks. I admit to using one a few years later, in South India, when I was taking a weekend trip to the ocean from where I was staying with Tibetan refugees outside of Mysore, but otherwise I’ve stuck to the hapless fool style of travel that I unwittingly fell into back in 1993. I’ve been all over India, Tibet and parts of China that way, hopping a bus to a place I’d heard was interesting, with a local map in my bag and a vague idea of what I might see. I’ve discovered that the best way to see Tibet was on foot or by horse, and I like to follow pilgrimage and trade routes over mountain passes. My research interests either stem from or facilitate this, not sure which. I recently was in Tibet for a year staying with families or monks and tracing routes between religious sites in the mountains – caves, or lakes, or hermitages. There’s nothing like knowing that I’m walking the same path that was used by a great lama whose biography I’d been reading, and entering a cave where he performed rituals, meditated, and received revelations and visions.
Which isn’t to say we won’t know where we’re going this summer, and that there aren’t excellent guidebooks available. I just don’t recommend relying on them. I know I can depend on Brad and Kelsang to organize a seamless and smooth trip that is at the same time exhilarating, and I know you all can rely on David and me to accompany you and help you soak yourself in the Himalayan cultures we’re visiting. Traveling in Asia is getting easier, but it’s still nothing like here. Bus rides last forever, delays are a fact of life, people who make appointments often don’t show, and there is dirt in everything. We’re going in style, but we’re going to India, and it’s important to remember that travel isn’t just about being in a new place, but getting there, and that so much of what is important happens on the road. I learned to love Hindi pop on overnight busses, and I learned how to eat a papaya while stranded in a small town when the bus broke down. No time is wasted, and I encourage you not to bring you iPods so you don’t miss the sounds of the trip.
Please email me with any questions you have for me. David and I will be recommending further reading over the next 6 weeks, and I hope to get more face time with all of you.