GAYA, India — After an overnight train ride’s worth of half-sleep filled with clickety-clackety dream vignettes — some real, some imaginary — I arrived shortly before daybreak at the Gaya railway station, greeted by cows foraging on concrete platforms.
In a daze, I only had the wherewithal to take a mental photograph of my bovine welcoming committee in the light of dusk, as I rushed with the other disembarked train passengers to hail a cab, which here meant a three-wheeled Bajaj auto rickshaw — essentially a moped with a bench seat, a windshield and a roof.
Yet in the early morning hours, none of those things provided protection against the pre-dawn cold, multiplied by the wind-chill. Even the driver wore a blanket. Although it was maybe 50 degrees, the temperature of Cape Cod waters I swam as a kid — and not Arctic by any stretch — the jarring shift from Kolkata’s heat, dust and humidity got the best of me.
The Bajaj taxicab rattled away from the train station with the sound of a thousand rusty lawnmowers, and not much faster, tailgating behind rumbling Tata trucks, racing alongside dilapidated Ambassadors and dodging cows hoofing it on the highway.
Eleven kilometers later, we arrived in Bodhgaya, a city of spiritual significance in Jain, Hindu, Islam and Buddhist faiths. Yet, had I been under the impression that the holy destination would be dour and humorless, that idea would’ve been quickly dispatched by one of the first things I saw amid the countless monasteries in town: A Bajaj with seven — count them, seven — Buddhist monks hanging off the sides and back.
Presumably, there were also at least two others on the rear bench seat.
So, now I know the answer to the as-yet unheard riddle: How many monks can a Bajaj carry?