BODHGAYA, India — Traveling without an itinerary or a return ticket can be a blessing and a curse.
As sunset approached and my day in Bodhgaya drew to a close, I needed to find accommodations — or decide to head out of town on an overnight train.
Beat from a day of retracing Buddha’s steps, seeing where he attained his great awakening under the bodhi tree in Bodhgaya, gawking at the smorgasbord of Buddha statues, grappling with the cognitive dissonance of the city’s hustle and bustle.
My Lonely Planet India guidebook noted that some monasteries offer weary travelers budget accommodations when not hosting groups of Buddhist devotees or monks-in-training.
After the day wound down and I’d dined on some fresh bread baked in a clay oven and a glass of milk and tea, I headed back toward the Tibetan temple, the Shenchen Monastery. It was one of the places His Holiness the Dalai Lama had visited the last time he’d been in Bodhgaya.
With tourists thinning out at the city’s religious sites, I witnessed a group of young Buddhist monks — some no older than 8 or 9 years old — congregating at the entrance. Reflexively, I picked up my camera, and they snapped to attention, turning to face me, several of them amused at the idea of being photographed by a visitor.
A feeling of warmth came over me, as if someone had assured me that everything would be all right, and I asked one of the older monks about lodging.
He motioned to follow the group — at least that was my understanding — and I trailed them as they rounded the temple’s corner and toward the residential area where Buddhist scholars and future monks slept. I noticed that many of them had in common a confident stride, far more so than I imagined myself having at their ages.
An older monk — and by that, I mean he was maybe 20 years old — showed me to a dorm room and made sure I had bedding and a pillow. I knew that my lodging wasn’t free, but he moved quickly, and I don’t think he heard or understood my inquiry, “Where do I pay?”
My guidebook said the cost was approximately $2.20, though I don’t recall the exact figure.
After a long day on my feet, I was relieved to be able to sit for a moment and look forward to a stationary bed. The room contained a bed and a desk, along with windows covered by a curtain the color of blood oranges, and a ceiling fan.
The rules, printed on a sheet of paper posted on the door, were straightforward: No alcohol, no food, no disrespectful behavior.
I slept like a baby.
The next morning, I searched high and low for the monk who had seen me to my room, and I found the next best thing: A monk tidying up the rooms, much like housekeeping at a hotel might do. I told him that I needed to fork over some money for my room, and I pressed a small stack of rupee notes into his hand, smiled and bowed, “Thank you.”