“Coming to India with yellow bike is much strangeness!” the small man yelled as I walked along the Ganges. Nearby, there was an open fire and, within it, the body of a recently deceased person. No, that was not a typo. A dead person was being burned in the open air before his or her ashes were to be thrown into the holy river. Hindus believe that if you die and are thrown into the Ganges, you will not need to be reincarnated. A goal of all Hindus, I was told.
This was my final rejection for the day, coming on the heels of so many others as I had made my way to the banks of the famous Ganges. I had come to India as part of a quest to circumnavigate the globe on a journey of kindness. A few months before, I had left my comfortable home in Los Angeles. Now I was riding a vintage (often broken) yellow motorbike halfway around the world, with no food, no money, and no place to stay—intentionally depending on the goodwill of others. The ground rule I had set for myself was that I would accept offers of food and lodging but not money. I wasn’t looking for a free ride; I was looking for a shared one. In fact, I planned to give away money to help some of the people I met as soon as I returned home. Ultimately, I wanted to reconnect with the world and, in some small way, help others reconnect too.
By this point, I had ridden all the way to New York, then crossed the Atlantic on a container ship to continue my travels. Some days and weeks were far rougher than others, when it seemed that no one would lend me a hand.
Now I sat down by the Ganges River, so tired that I could barely remember my own name. All I could do was stare at the water, the smoke, the bewildering world I had found myself in.
An older man walked past and then stopped, asking me what I was doing.
I didn’t know how to respond. I was tired of asking for help only to be rejected. “I don’t know,” I finally replied.
“One day you, too, will end up like this,” he said, referring to the funeral pyres burning around us. “Live inside this moment, and do not lose this time.”
He walked away, quickly consumed by the crowds, but his words remained. Those small moments—like watching a sunset on a Nebraskan farm or having tea with a new friend in Turkey—were immortal.
I stood up. Suddenly, India was not a great heaving beast but a collection of small steps, of endless stories, of magic amid the mayhem. It was my job to stay in the moment. I continued to walk along the Ganges, and I soon met Dilip, a young riverboat driver, who offered to take me for a dip. Dilip was short and slim, but his arms were built up from his days on the river.
In Greek mythology, Charon is the name of the riverboat driver who carries the dead souls across the river Styx to Hades, the kingdom of the dead. As I boarded Dilip’s boat on the murky Ganges, intending to swim in it, I hoped he wouldn’t be leading me to Hades anytime soon.
Because you see, taking a dip in the Ganges is not like taking a dip in the crisp blue waters of Lake Como. Although it is one of the holiest rivers in the world, it is also one of the dirtiest. I had seen carcasses floating past me. A dog. Two cows. A few unidentified objects.
They say that in bathing in the Ganges, you cleanse yourself of all your pain and suffering, but as Dilip and I drove along the dark and dreary water, I asked him, “Have you ever actually swum in the Ganges?”
“Yes,” he replied, clearly not feeling the same agitation that I was. “Many people do like this. I am no different.” I later found out that Dilip was from one of the lower castes in India. Though he wasn’t a Dalit, one of the “untouchables,” he came low enough on the rung that being a riverboat driver was nearly akin to being king.
At last, Dilip pulled the boat over. It was time for us to receive purification and, I hoped, not a deadly case of typhoid.
“Are you sure this is wise?” I asked, feeling the fear move through me as we stripped down to our shorts.
“Yes,” Dilip said. “Swimming in the Ganges will purify your karma.” He offered me a large red scarf to wrap around my waist and looked out over the water. “This is God. By feeling the vibrations, you’re always thinking, always changing.”
We said a prayer together, and then I stepped apprehensively into the cold water. Dilip moved quickly past me, submerging himself and splashing the water on his face.
I got in a bit farther as I asked Dilip, “You do this every day?”
He nodded as I pressed forward, saying, “And you don’t get sick?”
Dilip shook his head as I asked, “Do you drink the water?”
“Yes,” he replied, and then he drank.
Not far from us, a wedding was taking place on a boat. The sun was beginning to set as Dilip waded deeper. I looked around, and for a moment, it didn’t even feel as though I was on planet Earth. Instead, I was back in the stories of the Greek gods that I’d read in school. I thought about all the heroes who had traveled across the river in Charon’s boat—Heracles, Orpheus, Dionysus, and, of course, Odysseus. They all returned to the land of the living renewed and wiser for the journey. If they could do it, why couldn’t I?
I told Dilip as we bathed in the river, “I started my journey in Los Angeles at the Hollywood sign—the place where capitalism thrives—and here I am in the Ganges, the holiest place for Hindus, with you, someone I have just met.”
Dilip stood up and smiled. “Yes, because God does good things.”
He gave me a blessing in the river, speaking the prayer in Hindi and asking me to repeat it. We held hands as we prayed—two men from different sides of the world, standing together in the Ganges, cleansing our souls.
After we got out of the river, Dilip asked if I wanted to stay with him and his family for the night. We walked to where he lived with his wife, Dharmin, and their sons, Amrit, who was five, and Ashish, who was two.
As we ate dinner, Dilip explained that Amrit had been going to school but that they’d had to take him out.
“The school is too much money,” Dilip said. “And sometimes, I do not get enough passengers.” In the West, we see school as a right, not a privilege. But in India, education comes with fees, even for those who barely have enough to eat.
I had taken my own education for granted. I hated school, but I could never imagine not having it. It was there that I fell in love with the stories of history. It was there where I spun my first globe, looking at all the places I hoped to see. And though I failed chemistry and algebra, I also learned how to meet new people and create friendships.
I looked at Amrit and Ashish, and I couldn’t bear for them not to have that opportunity. The power of an education, whether it’s the traditional kind or one fueled by imagination, could alter the course of a life.
At sunset, I took Dilip and his sons for a walk along the riverbank. Dilip held Ashish in his arms, bouncing him, showering the boy with affection. It is this love, I thought, that will always keep us alive, long past our actual mortality. It is children who extend us past our deathbeds, carrying us into the great beyond. Dilip explained how he wanted his boys to have a better life than he had.
“I teach them,” he said, his eyes filling with tears of determination.
“You teach them yourself?” I asked.
“Yes, in the nighttime. I come home, and then I teach them. Money’s always a problem everywhere,” he said. “Who doesn’t have money problem?”
I was taken aback once more by how a man with nothing had such a deep acceptance of this world that has so much. Here was someone who had emerged from the caste system only to fight for his children to do the same. Yet he accepted this, even as he struggled against it.
“Because,” he said, “if I am good and honest person, God might send help for me.”
I thanked Dilip for his help, for his kindness, but most of all for showing me how to accept the moment I’m in. Maybe acceptance and struggle didn’t have to be in conflict. Maybe I could accept my home and yet be willing to question it. Be willing to question my own comfort, my own happiness. It was in that questioning that I might not feel complacent.
I decided to explain to Dilip about the other part of my trip, the part about giving back. “To me, education isn’t just learning things in school. It is learning about life. It’s about learning how to dream. So what I would like to do, if you agree, is to pay for the education of both your sons until they are 18 years old.”
Dilip’s smile disappeared. “Eighteen years old?” he mumbled. I worried he might be upset.
“It’s hard to take in.” Dilip began to rock back and forth slowly, staring out at the water.
I found myself trying to persuade him. “You told me that you don’t want your children to do what you do. You told me that you were kind because you never knew what would happen if you were kind to someone. You say you pray every day to God to change your life. So now your children will have the opportunity to live an educated life.”
I kept talking until I saw a slow smile wash over his face, tears circling his eyes as he took it all in. He looked me deep in the eyes, and he began to laugh. “You help my children? You take care of my sons’ future and their education? I’m very happy! I tell my wife, she’ll be so happy … so happy.”
His excitement was contagious. He knew even more than I did what that gift could offer, because it wasn’t just about giving a gift to one person. Like the energy of the village, the gifts were music that many might share. Just as Dilip had broken the mold and become a riverboat driver, so his sons would break the mold and go to school. Who knew how many times that torch would light another torch?
I hugged Dilip and his two sons and asked Amrit to send me a card every year telling me how school was going. And that’s how I ended up giving the one thing I always hated and for which I am begrudgingly grateful: school.
The Kindness Diaries by Leon Logothetis (Reader’s Digest, $24.99) is available wherever books are sold.