A parched riverbed runs through the city of Bodh Gaya; ancient depressions carrying the strength of apparitions though the sand, borne of the opposing desert, emerging from the mirage. Dust fuels a local market’s heat streaked pace. Cattle, vegetables and cash change hands; the subtle flow of commerce marches on. Karsen brings me to a village.

Two men greet us as the motorbike turns onto the perpendicular path. We walk, weaving through a patchwork of homes crafted of mud and thatch, a matching rusty hue with the earth. A group of children begins collecting behind us.

Radiating a warm glow, the village is resting in the quiet corner of a lucid dream. We sit. A welcome glass of water is accepted. A few dozen adults and children gather amidst manmade constructs of no doors, only windows. Women draped in saris effortlessly lower to the ground close by, men on the opposite side. Children arrange and re-arrange themselves, curious.

Then, we do something: nothing. In the silence only stillness permeates and we quietly sit — like sitting in a temple. Centuries of devotion, encased instead of within stone walls, by flesh, revealing reverence of equal depth. Absorbed in the energy of the moment we simply are.

Finally, we stand and silently stroll, stopping at a tin roof supported by metal bars wedged into the dirt. It’s the children’s school. We stand in this space and I am introduced to the teacher. She motions with her hand, “Come,” she says. “To my home.”

An iron stove anchors the front room along with a push-pedal sewing machine. In the back is a sleeping room with fan where we sit. She says in English, “Not good, my home.” I search my Hindi. “Bahut accha.” It’s all I have at a subtle contradiction. I want to tell her the walls are good and the floors are good but the words escape me.

We take our leave. My train departs Bodh Gaya at 1:55am and after dinner I am dropped at the gates of the guesthouse. Upon bidding my new acquaintance good bye Karsen asks, “Would you like to give money? To help fix the roofs in the village.”

I’d considered it, before dinner, offering money. Touring the village we discussed fixes to the dwellings, the need obvious. But instead of listening with my head about dollars, cents and obvious need, I listened with my heart. My heart said nothing. Doing nothing is also a choice. It was a privilege to visit the village. But when giving becomes compulsory, compassion is removed and it is no longer a gift.

I also remembered something. The first words Karsen spoke to me at the temple were not: “Which country?” They were, “Twenty rupees to take a photo.” It was the reason I ignored him.

“No, I don’t think so,” I tell him.

“Maybe later,” he says.

“Yes. Maybe later.”

~ by Christine Fowle