Monday, March 31, 2008


India. Incredible India, as the ad slogan goes. Breathtakingly beautiful, heartbreakingly poor. Endless vistas and cramped slums. Genuine kindness and blatant artifice. Hot spices and cool lemon sodas. Chicken tandoori and vegetable biryani. Startlingly modern and stubbornly traditional. Everywhere and no where I’ve ever been. India can’t be properly summed up in a simple narrative, or even a novel-it’s divided up into innumerable states, each a separate country in itself, with different languages and cultures. As always, when traveling, I learned about myself, my limits, and my boiling points. I met amazing people and saw some of the world’s most impressive monuments. I tracked tigers in the jungle and galloped horses in the desert. I danced around a burning straw image in Udaipur and ‘made Holi’ with my Indian friends. I traveled by car, bus, train, bicycle rickshaw, auto rickshaw, plane, and beast. I got took in Jaipur, molested in Agra, and ripped off in Ranthambore. I sampled spices I never knew existed and realized that the most I could ever hope for is a tantalizing taste of India, with only two weeks.

This was my trip. I went alone on the money I’d earned slaving away fall semester at Archiver’s. I wanted to get away and reach outside my boundaries for a bit. My flight left Minneapolis at 7 am on Thursday, March 13th. I scrambled to complete my make-up work for school, being somewhat successful but losing a bit of sleep the week prior. I hugged Mom good-bye and flew to JFK, where I spent six interminable hours waiting for my connecting flight to India. I checked my luggage all the way through so I did not have to pick it up in JFK. Oops. When I received my seat assignment with Air India, I asked if my luggage was processed. The woman looked at her computer screen, wrote something on a piece of paper, and assured me it was. Uh-huh. My flight was the most comfortable 15 hours of air time I’ve ever had. Seated in the brand new plane, I stretched out across the two empty seats next to me, dozed, watched the new releases on my video console, nibbled at the strange food the flight attendants kept hoisting on me, and wiggled my toes in happiness.

I stumbled off the plane 15 hours later into the oppressive heat of Delhi at 4:30 local time. Bleary-eyed, I waited forever in customs and finally made it to the baggage claim area, watching the luggage circle and circle on the carousel. Hmm, no bright blue suitcase. The carousel stopped turning and I went to find the Air India desk. “So, where’s the luggage?”
“We don’t really know,” came the frank, and unwelcome response. Instead, they handed me paperwork, sent me running through the airport to collect official ‘stamps’, and then sent me on my way without any assurance of when the bag might arrive. “Hopefully soon!” they said. Grrrrr.

I was infinitely relieved to see my driver waiting in the crush of humanity at the exit with a sign for Ms. Laura. You see, I had pre-booked a car, driver, and hotels from America for a really reasonable sum of money. In the end, after talking with lots of other travelers, my transportation costs were not much more than hiring little tuk-tuks to bring my everywhere. Plus, freedom! Well, sort of, if you read on J

He was short, middle-aged, and named Kamal, with an accent so thick I had difficulty discerning his speech. I think he had equal trouble understanding me. We left the airport and ‘merged’ into Indian traffic, an oddly comforting confluence of horns, pollution, auto rickshaws, elephants, cows, pedestrians, motor bikes, and swerving cars. It was Cairo on Eastern steroids. Plus, instead of the tiny Indica compact car I’d reserve, a spacious SUV awaited me. Kamal claimed it was our vehicle for the rest of the vacation, and I was too tired to figure out why.

My hotel the ‘Good Palace’, was in the Karol Bagh area of Delhi. Very ‘palatial.’ My hotels varied in quality, cleanliness, and hot water availability throughout the trip, and it was always an adventure to check the bed and see how ‘spotless’ the sheets were and how many creepy crawlers lurked in the bathroom. I also enjoyed the frequent power outages around India, lasting anywhere from a few minutes to several hours. I checked in with my paucity of luggage (just the obnoxious, red-flowered carry-on) and climbed up to the room, which was tolerable and clean. Then, I assessed the damage-no contacts (just glasses), three pairs of underwear, 1 bra, two shirts, 1 pair of pants, 1 toothbrush, no toiletries. Time to go…shopping! There just happened to be a United Colors of Benneton across the street, where I managed to find a pair of linen pants and a tee-shirt. Then, I raided a pharmacy a few blocks away for toothpaste, shampoo and conditioner. About to return for the evening, I remembered deodorant, and so I picked some up, luckily, because I would have been a rather rancid tourist without it. I also stopped at an exchange booth and traded in my 100 dollars for rupees, at a rate of 40 rps-1 $. Not bad.

Dinner I ordered from room service, costing a whole 5 dollars. Rice and chicken masala (i.e. chicken in a rich, tomato-y, spicy sauce). My first taste of India flavored my tongue with an exotic mélange of foreign spices and juicy chicken. Sated, I collapsed into bed.

I met Kamal the next morning and piled into the SUV, eager to see Delhi. His job description, as specified in the contract, was to drop me off at the monuments, but not to go in. So, I was largely alone on my sightseeing forays, and if I wanted photo with me in it, I had to ask strangers! First, we drove to a large, white and brown temple fronted with two large swastikas. I hadn’t realized Hitler had come so far east, so after I ditched the camera and shoes in the ‘foreign visitors’ room, I read the plaque explaining the ancient symbol as one of peace, dating back at least 5,000 years. Though I understood the symbol far pre-dated the Nazis, it was still disconcerting to see swastikas plastered over everything in India. From there we drove past parliament and the prime minister’s house, stopped at the India Gate (a giant Arc of Triumph) where I mustered up courage and asked a sunburned Welsh couple to take my photo, and then went to Humayn’s Tomb. Tall shade trees and winding paths contrasted with the dirty, sweltering muck of Delhi, and I quickly paid the 250 rps and entered the hidden oasis. The immaculate grounds hid crumbling tombs, Moghul mosques, ancient palaces, and a spectacular mosoleum I’ve nicknamed the brown Taj Mahal. About the same size as its more famous namesake, this one houses about 100 graves, including that of Humayn, and is set amid sprawling grounds, cool fountains, and prefaced with a magnificent gate. The entire complex dated back to the 16th century and was beautifully preserved, unlike most of the monuments in India. India has on of the most ancient histories of the world, dating back thousands of years. Yet its current rate of expansion, pollution, and corruption threatens to destroy this magnificent history, and crumbling, blackened ruins scarred by smog, age, graffiti and the elements are more common than a well-preserved monument.

I suppose it’s about time to discuss the men of India. Yes, the men. The women were just as populous, but they didn’t leer, jeer, harass, and attempt to molest like the male population. If you’ve read my Egypt capers, you probably know I’m accustomed to unwanted, and intrusive, male attention. Honestly, men just suck sometimes. So India wasn’t as challenging as the guidebooks claimed. The constant stares, salacious comments muttered in Hindi, attempts to brush against me in a crowd…they were annoying, but not terribly innovative. However, I did feel that most Indian men were worse than Egyptians, if you can imagine. They stared longer and more hungrily, behaved without any modicum of propriety, and treated me entirely as an object. I ignored them all. They often asked to take a pic with me, which I disdainfully declined. I know I’m different, I know I stand out in a crowd of dark-skinned, dark-haired Indians, but I don’t gape every time an Indian woman walks down the street in the U.S. I have come to judge a country by the way they treat women-how well educated they are, what careers they hold, how they are regarded on the street. In Rajasthan, it is estimated that only 25% of women are literate, and they are a silent population laboring in the fields, in the homes, but never participating in life. Of course, upper class families are better educated and there is a more equitable balance between the sexes. I don’t like to play the feminist card, but sometimes it’s difficult to avoid when men behave so reprehensibly.

Ok, so that was an entirely unfavorable portrayal of India, and makes my vacation seem rather dour and defensive. It wasn’t. It was lovely! I met people from all over the world, laughed, explored, and blundered my way through that vast and discordant country. India was a riot, quite literally at times J

Back to Delhi-after the Humayn tomb, we drove through the throngs of midday traffic to Qutb Minar, a giant, carved pillar dating back to the 12th century and surrounded by acres of ruins. The entrance fees in India were certainly not exorbitant, not like in Europe, usually no more than 250 rps. But that’s the foreign price. Indians always paid a fraction of that- 20-40 rps. Of course, tourists are usually more ‘wealthy’ than Indians, but it did rankle me somewhat. I ran into a Minnesotan at the Qutb Minar. From there, I had a rather boring lunch alone at an expensive restaurant Kamal brought me to. He dropped me off and disappeared, leaving me to sit at a table, all alone, and eat exorbitantly priced food. Poor Wawa. We drove briefly to the tour company headquarters, where I met the boss and discussed the itinerary and paid the bill.

After that, we visited the lotus-shaped Baha’i temple and then penetrated the truly unruly quarter of Old Delhi, the Arab quarter. Go figure. Traffic literally stopped for 10 minutes at a time while traffic cops futilely blew whistles and attempted to wave the donkey carts, rickshaws, lorries, bicycles, cars, and pedestrians into actual traffic lanes. I rather pitied them. Aside from this ‘charming’ atmosphere, Old Delhi harbors the Jama Masjid, the largest mosque in India, and quite beautiful and dating back to the Moghuls. Thinking I might need to cover my arms, I ran across the street and bought a cheap ‘pashmina’ scarf, although it wasn’t necessary.

Kamal felt it when I returned and laughed. “Not real pashmina,” he said. “I know,” I said defensively. “But they didn’t have any ‘real’ ones.” So, Kamal brought me to a textile store near my hotel. There, I discovered real pashmina, i.e. cashmere, and bought one cashmere and 3 silk. Then, Kamal dropped me off at the hotel around 5 or 6 and I went exploring, wandering down the pedestrian-choked street near my hotel and purchasing some more additions to my wardrobe at a store called Miss Players. Interesting name, eh? I didn’t feel like eating alone in my room again, so I went to a totally vegan hole-in-the-wall place around the corner where I had the proverbial rice and paneer masala for 2 dollars. There were two Japanese and a bunch of locals eating, and I briefly bonded with them while gulping water to abate the spices.

The next morning, I checked out and hopped in the car to Jaipur, passing through the beautiful Indian countryside, full of farms, ramshackle towns, and marble stores. We stopped for a bit at a Westernized rest stop with clean rest rooms and overpriced food while Kamal claimed he needed to go to the temple. I think so, anyway. I couldn’t really understand him. He muttered something to me, pulled into the little rest stop, and walked away. Ok. I met two charming ladies from Britain and France while sipping a mango juice on the lawn, rather enjoying my independence. In the car, Kamal pulled out a ‘guestbook’ of sorts, where previous clients wrote how much they appreciated his service. There weren’t as many as I’d guessed, knowing he’d been a driver for several years…

Only four hours away, Jaipur came into view nestled in a rocky valley and surrounded by fortress walls perched on the encircling hills, constructed to protect the local maharaja from invaders. My hotel, unfortunately, was a bit far from all of the tourist stuff, but rather quaint. In the searing heat of midday, we returned to the old city, surrounded by impenetrable, thick, ornately decorated pink walls and wound our way through the tourist buses and local traffic to the City Palace, a gorgeous complex of intricate woodwork that still houses the royal family of Jaipur. Afterwards, I made a brief stop at the Hawa Mahal, a many-storied structure designed to allow the women of the king’s harem to observe the street without being seen. Kinda fun to look out and know that queens were doing the same things hundreds of years back.

Next, Kamal took me to a textile and fabric store, ‘for the company’ he said as he dropped me off. I don’t like being taken to commissioned stores, and I wasn’t going to buy anything, until I decided I really wanted several pairs of tailor-made silk pants, a black dress, and, what the heck, a silk cami. I actually rather enjoyed myself, picking out the patterns and fabric of the clothes. When I got back into the car, Kamal seemed pleased and then asked me how much I spent! I told him, but with slight irritation. Then, he took me to a gem store, as Jaipur is rightfully famous for their colored stones-rubies, sapphires, and emeralds. More stones go through here than anywhere in the world. I bought mom a lovely present, mainly because I was assured of the veracity of the emeralds J but then Kamal again asked how much I spent. Laughing, I said “too much!” But he pressed me. So I eventually told him. Grrrr. I think that was the beginning of my bitterness. And the end of my expensive shopping habits.

The next morning we drove through the old city to the Amber Fort, a beautiful, tan colored structure perched high on a hilltop, reachable mainly by elephant back. I stood in the lengthy queue comprised of slightly sunburned tourists chattering away in tongues from every corner of the world. I was sandwiched between the Spanish and the Germans. I hired an ‘official guide’ for a whopping 5 dollars, climbed on my elephant, and sat like a maharani (queen) as the elephant bore me up the hill behind an amiable couple from Iran who asked me whether I liked Clinton or Obama. I gathered McCain would be an inappropriate response…I was already getting palaced-out, but it was a gorgeous complex of original stained glass windows, tilework, and stone carvings. Afterward, the guide took me to an emporium of his own, but I stood firm and didn’t buy anything. Really! I didn’t. It was most impressive.

I wandered around the markets and monuments of the old city for much of midday, climbing random towers and poking my nose into sari shops, leaving Jaipur with a sense of accomplishment, two silk purses, and one white, blue peacock-patterned sari. So much for not spending more…I relaxed at an ayurvedic massage parlor, where the sweet masseuse chases away the tension in my muscles and rubbed my skin with sweet oils. And it only set me back 15 dollars. I love India. In the evening, the company paid for a visit to a Rajasthani cultural center, entirely overwhelming as a single traveler. Think Epcot’s World Showcase multiplied into 18 acres of northern India culture-elephant and camel rides, snake charmers, round huts with traditional food, henna painting, musicians, and, of course, little markets. Most of the activities were free, but I left slightly dazed after about an hour. A pair of cute British girls stopped me on the way out. “What is this place? Where should we begin? What do we do?” I felt like echoing their sentiments.

Jaipur is a medium-sized city of over 6 million, and we left it the next day for the small desert town of Pushkar. Actually, we left it a bit late on account of my involvement in the movie She’s the Man starring Amanda Bynes at 10 in the morning. Hey, it was my vacation.

Pushkar, oh Pushkar. A verdantly green oasis sprawling through a valley ringed with scrubby vegetation, sand dunes, and craggy heights, Pushkar was a delight after the big cities. It is an incredibly holy city, with lines of barefoot Hindu pilgrims plodding through their streets on the way to the Brahma temple, one of the only in the world. It is an entirely vegan city, meaning no meat, alcohol, drugs, or even eggs are served in its vicinity. As I learned, though, a few of those items were smuggled in…500 other temples dot the town and encircle a holy lake where Hindus scatter blossoms in the water and bathe in its putrid sacredness. And Pushkar also attracts a very unique type of tourist-the druggie/hippie crowd. Gone were the busloads of older, white tourists obediently following their guide from the door of their 5-star hotel to the A/C bus, to the palace, and then back again. Nope. Pushkar visitors scorned that type of traveler, sporting dreadlocks, scruffy clothes, an air of rebelliousness, and the occasional bong. Yes. I was sipping a cup of chai early one morning in a garden restaurant when 4 Israelis seated themselves loudly at a table nearby. One unceremoniously pulled out a bong and then cursed when he didn’t have a lighter. They asked me for one, but, unfortunately, I don’t light up enough to carry one around. I, like them, am forced to borrow matches when I need my bong lit. That’s a joke, btw. A joke. So they found some matches and began smoking. Charming.

Pushkar has one main street, lined with the most fascinating shops full of ridiculously cheap (think 4 dollars) silk shirts and the baggy trousers preferred by Pushkar clientele. I spent the first day exploring temples and wandering around the shores of the lake and avoiding the cow poo. Yes, I now realize why I will never make a good Hindu. I see a cow standing in the middle of the road and think nice juicy steak. Hindus see the same animal and think sacred god. We appear to have a fundamental divergence of gastronomical beliefs. Like everywhere else in India, the cows cluttered the streets, butting their noses into temples, ambling across the highway, laying down in the shade of the town hall, and scavenging through piles of rubbish. Honestly, they were rather cute, but only added to the generally foul odor that constituted Indian ambiance.

That evening, I ate a rather lonely meal in my hotel-which was quite charming, if a bit dirty. There was a somewhat murky pool in the back and cool veranda which harbored free internet. Yay! Pushkar was certainly wired for all of the hip backpackers that wandered through. It was also wonderfully small, and I walked everywhere for two days, enjoying the 10 minute trek into the local bazaar; within an hour, I could walk almost anywhere. The following morning I went horseback riding (me!?!) in the desert, galloping over the sand dunes, trying not to stare at the immense poverty of the slums and tent cities we rode past, and fending off the unspoken sexual invitation during a break after 3 hours of riding. In the middle of the sandy desert, down a cool country lane, the guide stopped beneath a shady tree and motioned for me to do the same. I looked at him, dismounted, and promptly began scratching the soft skin of my horse’s nose, blatantly ignoring his stares. Note he was much shorter and scrawnier than me. They always are. Finally he asked if I had a ‘friend’ in the States. I wanted to kick him soundly where it hurts and scream obscenities at him, but I lamely replied, “yes, he’s big and likes to box”. So we returned to the stables and I even tipped him because my nagging sense of guilt over India’s poverty forced me. Grrrr. I hate having a conscience sometimes. Though I never once gave money to a beggar, whether it was a mother knocking on the car window with an infant or a hungry child tugging on my hand in the street. I can be verrrry cold. And I hate the idea of begging, and I know that not all beggars are genuine.

As the afternoon wore on, a bit bored, I attempted to climb the large mountain near town to watch the sunset. Yet, as I trod further down the deserted, sandy road and watched the sun sink lower, I realized (yes, Mom, I’m not totally stupid) that it might not be wise to be returning, alone, from the mountain after dark. So I trudged back to town, collapsed in a lakefront café, and resigned myself to another meal alone. Then three rather beautiful girls walked by appearing a wee bit lost, looking for a table, and I motioned them over. Thus began a wonderful night of laughter, vegetable pulau, Diet Coke, and Swedish-accented English. They were adorable and we spent hours after dinner chatting away in the warm evening. I had already ordered food when they arrived, and when my meal came when they were still deliberating, and they proceeded to order 3 of my dish. Luckily, they, too, enjoyed it!

Thud thud thud. Bang bang bang. My eyes flew open in the middle of the night to a mysterious noise, and I leapt out of bed, scrambling for my glasses and wondering what on earth causing that racket. My balcony door, it appeared, had blown open in the gales of wind, and I latched it swiftly, shivering in the warm night. I checked behind every door and in the bathroom for any unwanted intruders, but, thankfully, the howling storm, with shards of lightning, tempestuous winds, and booming thunder, was not a precursor to the Pushkar serial killer. Eventually, I fell asleep, only to be awoken, again, by a series of loud knocks at my front door. I glanced at the wall clock and saw it was about 8 am. “Who is it?” “Yes, miss, it’s me,” said Kamal. “Are you ready?” Ummmm, my shopping bags (substitutes for the lost suitcase) were scattered across the room, my hair was dusty from the horse ride, and I needed to put some clothes. “No.” “Can I come in?” “No, I’m not ready!” I shouted, likely annoying the slumbering guests down the hall. He seemed frustrated, but, as he hadn’t talked to me about a departure time, I wasn’t prepared for an 8 am drive. “I’ll be ready soon,” I said. And he sputtered, muttered a few things, and said, “alright miss.” I stomped off to my lukewarm shower.

Kamal was still cheerful on the drive to Udaipur, though, and we arrived mid-afternoon to navigate the impossibly narrow, steep streets. We proceeded up a street, wide enough only to admit our vehicle and perhaps a motorbike or two on one side, and slammed on the brakes as another car sped towards us from the opposite direction. Both drivers gestured and shouted briefly, and then the other vehicle slammed into reverse until it came to a wider part of the street. Wider, of course, meaning we almost scraped off their side mirror while passing. Eventually, we came to my hotel, this time situated in the center of the city, and Kamal helped me check in and followed me up to my room, as always, to help inspect it. Before he left, he cleared his throat and began to explain something about a holy and crowded streets and hard to travel and must leave in the night. Without understanding, I said, “Sure, Kamal”. After a late lunch, I set off to discover Udaipur’s wonders, at the same time asking about this “holy” thing.

Actually, the Hindu holiday is Holi, and a two-day celebration that commemorates the failed sacrifice of a devout Hindu king in India’s past. On day one, people venerate the more religious aspects of the holiday and prepare for the giant celebrations in the evening. To honor the king, Hindus burn tall straw images loaded with fireworks around the city and party all night long. In addition, they also buy bags of colored powder and throw handfuls of neon greens, blues, oranges, and pinks at everyone who walks by. That sounds rather fun, I thought. But then, everyone warned me NOT to travel or go outside on day two. Men drink too much, supposedly, and then are ‘free’ with their actions. So, I thought, your society just allows men to harass women because they need to drink?!? However, I needed to travel to Ranthambore on day 2, as I had a tiger safari booked for 6am the next morning. Hence, apparently, Kamal’s desire to leave very early.

Famed for its lake palaces, Udaipur boasts two white, gleaming versions of these, both converted into 500 dollar a night hotels. I don’t mind occasionally splurging, but even I had to pass on these palaces. I spent the afternoon as a mere mortal, ogling the lake castles from ashore and admiring the city palace on the mainland. This Holi thing seemed to be consuming the entire populace, and a ceremony was taking place in the palace grounds to practice for the lavish gala dinner the king was to be hosting the next evening. While watching, I struck up conversation with two Czechs, who invited me to go with them to watch sunset from a mountaintop palace a few kilometers outside of town. Why not, right? We piled into a tuk-tuk and rumbled off, very slowly. At the end of its diesel-spewing life, the tuk-tuk rattled, wheezed, and coughed while rolling through the streets of Udaipur. How was it going to make it up the mountain? It wasn’t. First the driver stopped for re-fueling at the petrol station and a pack of cigarettes while we watched the sun descent ponderously on the horizon. Finally, we reached the mountain and began the onerous climb upward. With a final sputter, a spewing of smoke, and an ominous shudder, the tuk-tuk stopped, unable to go further. Cursing the driver, we piled out of the vehicle, eyed the long road to the top, and began hiking.

Good thing I had some water with me. We spent about 40 minutes to an hour striding up that mountain, watching the fiery sun gently slip behind hazy peaks in the distance and finally reaching the palace. We raced through it, snapped photos of the moon over Udaipur, and headed down by the light of the almost full orb. It was quite pleasant, actually, the soft noises of nature replacing the incessant honks and squeals of India’s traffic. The tuk-tuk driver was a decent bloke, and had one of his friends meet us at the gate, so we returned to town and had a slow dinner atop a rooftop restaurant. For those James Bond fans out there, I happened to be located in the revered town where Octopussy was shot. You know, the one where James rescues the damsel in distress, shoots the bad guys...Anyway, suffice it to say, Bond once raced motorbikes through the city of Udaipur. And lots of the restaurants screened nightly showings of the movie. It confused me, though, when I walked up to a restaurant and Octopussy was scrawled in big letters on a sign. Whoa, I thought, Thailand red light district redux? No, my Czechs assured me, just Bond.

Awaking the next morning with a strange energy, I breakfasted and hiked over to the City Palace, which I toured and then took a boat ride on the lake for a brief stop at one of the palaces. Opulent, with palace and temple ruins dating back 400 years. At dusk, I stopped by a textile store, bought the cheapest shirt in the place (really! for Holi) and condesended to get Henna done for the selfsame holiday. The entire city buzzed with an excitment transferrable even to the ignorant blonde whitie. By nightfall I was hot, sweaty, and ready for bed, but sleep was not to be granted for many hours. Following the sound of the pounding Indian pop music blasting from the local temple, I joined the thousands of others already thronging and peered intently at the belly dancers on stage, with heavily made-up faces, accentuated bosoms, and gyrating hips. Were those men? Indeed, they were. Transvestite dancers in Udaipur. Quite near the stage was a looming, 20-30 foot high statue constructed of straw and embedded with fireworks and dynamite. No, that is not poetic license. There were, truly, explosives tied to the flammable image.

After an hour or so of transvestite undulating, the crowd stepped back a few feet, dismantled the stage, and proceeded to line the street with a string of fireworks. On the ground, mere feet from the masses of people. Hmmmm. How is this going to work, I wondered, and my American friends who I’d met that evening pondered the same existential question. Particularly as we eyed the giant electrical transformer box two feet away from the explosives, the rusting metal strung with exposed wires and cables. Eventually, with much ceremony, the fireworks were lit, and the colorful sparks inched closer and closer to the main square, proceeded by panicked packs of men flailing their arms. My ‘prime’ position placed me about 2 feet from the row of unlit fireworks, and I could not back up further due to the crowds behind me, stretching to the buildings at the rear. Uh-oh….The sparks flew closer, and they ricocheted off my legs and arms, creating a mass panic in the crowds around me, which pushed and shoved backwards, carrying me with them in a desperate attempt to avoid the fire. In the end, I ended up ducking behind the giant electrical transformer box as the fireworks sparked past, catching the entire ordeal on film. Then, the straw image caught fire, and all hell broke loose. Obviously, the flames engulfed the brittle straw, searing the air around it and igniting the explosives, sending them shooting into the crowd and instigating mini riots while people fled the smoldering missiles. I was jostled further as the fireworks flung outward in all directions, but, madly, the Indians laughed and pushed forward, dancing insanely near the flames in an eerie group that reminded me of horror films. While the straw eventually burned down, the fireworks continued to spark for an hour, as they had been well hidden in the ground surrounding the effigy. I hung back from the wild, orgy-like partying, trying to avoid the dominantly male crowd and the handfuls of colored powder they flung at each other. Happy Holi. One errant fireworks hit the electrical transformer, sparked, and cut the city’s power supply, effectively ending the crazed celebration. With the police moving in to calm the crowd, I walked back to my hotel, dazed and rather shocked, while I showered, packed, and waited for 4 am. Huddled in my room, I heard the shouts, explosions, and sounds of revelers until at least 2.
Every hotel at which I stayed had its quirks; Udaipur's 'Raj Palace' was no exception. You see, it was the bathroom that most captivated me. For one, the toliet handle (which was above the toliet, like a commercial one) leaked water whenever it flushed. Whatever, it just ran into the toliet. The far more scintillating aspect of my bathroom was the window. Granted, a curtain covered it, but it was open, auditory-wise, to the hallway. Ahhh, but it wasn't just MY bathroom that had a window; every room in the place had a similar setup. So, while I was happily showering (in the tub with no curtain=flood), I heard my neighbor singing in the shower, the guy next to me taking a leak, etc. A truly intimate, and somewhat unwanted, glimpse into the bathroom habits of my fellow travelers.

By 4 the streets were silent, and we drove uninterrupted through dawn, when the situation turned, errrrm, volatile. I lay down in the backseat to avoid being seen, as Kamal suggested. But the car slowed as we approached a town, and Kamal opened the window to hand out a few small bills to the young boys who were screaming something and banging on the door. They didn’t see me, and we drove on. What I didn’t learn until later was that people built obstacles in the road, and would not permit cars to pass until a ‘toll’ was paid. As the day wore on, however, the crowds of people around the car increases in size and volume, and they banged on the windows, threw stuff at the car, and tried to open my door. Several times Kamal got out of the car while I wanted to screech “Get me out of here!” But I huddled down and tried to ignore the frenzied Indians around me. Once, Kamal gave a lift to several adolescents who piled in the front seat and promptly stared at me. Ewwww.

Somehow, we passed through the countryside relatively unharmed and reached Ranthambore by mid-afternoon. I stumbled out of the car in an utterly foul mood, checked into my room, discovered my toilet didn’t work, and growled at the workers until they fixed it. I ate my first real meal in 24 hours, relaxed slightly, and befriended the most wonderful Indian family. As I was walking past the pool on the way to my room, I heard a man shout, “You are alone, no? Today you are our family!” I brought my book over to the pool, plopped down in the chair, and was promptly accosted by several children asking me, in the most proper English, “What is your name? How many years have you?...” From then on, I gained a retinue of 4 youngsters (three triplets and their cousin), with whom I played hide and seek, Holi, football, and a number of other children’s games while the other hotel residents watched in bemusement. The adults of the family were equally kind, inviting me on all sorts of excursions in their big, silver SUV with air that actually worked.

The next morning, at 6 am, I was bundled outside my hotel, waiting for the jeep to come whisk me away to the nearby national park to see tigers. Right. After a frightful night of lizards crawling on my walls, moths swooping through the room, mosquitoes buzzing in my ear, and all other manner of creepy crawlers taking refuge, I was ready to see something more substantial than an invasion of ants.

Alas, Ranthambore was a farce. Divided into 5 sectors, each vehicle draws a number from a lottery as to which sector it enters. But not all sectors are created equal. No, tiger spottings are virtually guaranteed in sector 3, common in sector 2, occasionally seen in sector 5, and never seen in the other two sectors. Of course, my six person jeep drew sector 4, which we naively thought was a good pick. All we saw were deer, peacocks (as common as robins in India), and tiger tracks. In fact, my fellow safari-goers were far more exciting than the actual safari-a British couple and an older French couple with their guide, staying at the 500 dollar a night Oberoi villas. The Brits, Fran and Piers, ended up being my traveling companions for the rest of the vacation, and all six of us ran into each other at the Taj Mahal a few days later.

So, after my safari, I returned to the hotel, dejected, walked a mile to find cans of diet pop, played a round of hide-and-seek with my young friends, and wondered how on earth I could manage to find a tiger. Bribery, of course. After a Spanish woman and I discussed our paucity of luck, we decided drastic measures needed to be enacted. After climbing into my jeep (which I’d pre-booked a month before; otherwise, I would have been relegated to a 20-person vehicle), I informed the guide this was my last safari and I’d be damned if I didn’t see a tiger. He, of course, claimed it was all luck, but I didn’t believe him. I followed him to the place where the guides draw lots, and noticed three bags-I saw some money exchange hands, and one guide pick #2. Another guide drew from another bag and selected #4. With my American sense of equality sorely injured, I began shouting about the injustice of it all. To appease me, the guide had me pick the number, and I drew #2. That wasn’t too bad, but I informed me guide, as we walked to the jeep, that I’d give him a huge bribe if he got me to sector three and found me a tiger. In a sense, he did. He snuck into sector 3, the lake sector around which the tigers always congregate, and ‘found’ a tiger, so far away I could only see through high-powered binoculars. Hmmmph.

We returned to our appointed sector, 2, but could not find a tiger. So I gave him a decent tip, and left, still irritated. I was determined to find a tiger. So, I booked a safari for the next morning through the hotel, hopefully in a small vehicle. They told me they needed to wait for a cancellation and could not guarantee anything. Grrrr. I ate dinner that evening with my Brits at their hotel down the road, offering to bring them to Agra with me in my giant SUV. Kamal ok’d it, and we agreed to meet after my safari.

6 am rolled around, and I was informed I was to be put in one of the giant vehicles. From there, the morning slid downwards in a hilarious spiral of Indian inefficiency. One bright spot-my Swedish friends, the ones I’d met in Pushkar, happened to be in the same vehicle, so I at least had company in my misery. It took us 1.5 hours to pick up everyone, being the last vehicle to enter the park, and missing the only time that tigers are active, at sunrise or at sunset. Of course, our sector was 4, so it didn’t really matter. The guide pretended it was an excellent draw, but we drove around aimlessly, stopping to photograph deer, peacocks, and the itinerant bird. I tried to take a nap. As the vehicle rumbled out of the park, so loud I’m sure all tigers fled before its exhaustive roar, I told the guide to stop the vehicle, bid my Swedes good-bye, and hopped out to catch a taxi into town. I did not think I could stand waiting 1.5 hours until the vehicle again returned to my hotel.

Fran arrived as I did, helped me pack, and then piled into the SUV. We picked up her boyfriend, Piers, and headed to Agra. With company, the drive seemed much shorter, with the girls gossiping in the back for the entire ride, and we stopped briefly at a palace complex, Fatephur Sikri, a gorgeous collection of red stone buildings abandoned soon after its construction in the 17th century due to lack of water in the area. Why the emperor didn’t realize this before he invested loads…money doesn’t buy intelligence, that’s for sure.

Piers is a boxer, with big muscles, and Fran is a beautiful blonde, so the three of us made quite an impression on the Indian tourists, who harassed us for a good 20 minutes, trying to take our photo. Eventually, we left and reached Agra, home of the Taj Mahal, by nightfall. During the trip, we had left Rajasthan and crossed into another state of India. En route to Agra (seriously, how cool is that?!), we hit a 'traffic jam'. Cars powered off, drink sellers rambled through the parked cars. In a deserted lot/garbage dump by the road, Fran and I couldn't help but notice a child, in view of numerous cars, pull down his drawers and proceed to take a poo. No, we didn't watch. But it was rather troubling to see a) the lack of sanitation b) the lack of modesty and c) the fact that the children roamed in gangs instead of schools. Sadly, this wasn't an isolated moment- many other similarly uncomfortable scenes confronted me throughut my travels. But I was helpless to do anything than roll up the window, turn on the A/C, and drive on. Utterly callous. But I am not yet in the business of solving the world's woes.
Kamal checked me into the hotel and even offered to help Fran and Piers find a slightly cheaper one, although they were perfectly content hiring a tuk-tuk to drive them. They also slipped Kamal a nice tip for the drive, plus he earned commission on their hotel. So we thought he seemed fairly pleased at the end of the night.

Fran and Piers were going up to Haridwar next, a town rather far north in the foothills of the Himalayas with the river Ganges passing through. I checked my guidebook, and noticed a national park, with tigers!, near Haridwar, so I decided to accompany them and change my itinerary with the tour company. Before dinner, I called the boss and informed him of my plans and assumed he would allow us to use the car, especially since I would pay the extra gas and toll fees. No, he informed me, it would cost another 8000 rupees! Like hell I’m paying that, I muttered to my friends (not to him), so I told him I would find another way to reach Haridwar. Surely 500 km of gas did not cost over 200 dollars. The three of us, weary of Indian food, craved McDonald’s, so we found one in a local mall, but not before I was groped en route. Yuck. I was sick of Agra, sick of its pollution, disgusting citizens, and noise.

Kamal had agreed to pick us all up at 6 to view the Taj Mahal at sunrise. At 6:20, the sun had risen, I was still waiting for him in the lobby with my many shopping bags of luggage, slightly worried. He had always been unfailingly punctual. Piers soon rushed in, saw me, and relaxed slightly. “He hasn’t come for you either?” “No,” I replied, “and it’s odd, because he’s never late.” After waiting a bit more, I told him to go back to Fran, who was a 2 minute tuk-tuk ride away. “If he comes, we’ll pick you up.”

6:30-Kamal storms into the hotel, greets me curtly, and asks roughly why I have my luggage. I attempted to explain to him my change in plans, but he shoves his cell phone into my hand, dialing the boss, and paces. Patiently explaining my plan to drive to Delhi that day and catch a train to Haridwar, I hand the phone back to Kamal, who converses briefly. “I’m checking out now,” I informed Kamal, “do you mind giving them the voucher?” The hotel staff themselves had been quite rude, forbidding me from leaving until my bill had been paid. Which isn’t that rude, I suppose, just frustrating, especially since the company was responsible for all of my hotel tariffs. I paid them up front, but they handed the hotel the actual payment. Kamal brusquely helped bring my stuff to the car, and then turned in the opposite direction of Fran and Piers. “Wait! We have to pick them up!” “I don’t care for them,” he muttered, “they’re not coming with us to Delhi.” Now, I can understand that Kamal was only hired to drive me around, but he had agreed to bring Fran and Piers, and had made lots of commission off them…And why the sudden change in demeanor? Last night, he had been almost obsequious in his desire to help them find a hotel.

We picked them up, and they asked me what was wrong, but I gestured toward Kamal and mouthed later. Kamal unceremoniously deposited us at the Taj gate, told us he’d wait in a nearby hotel, and not to take more than 1-2 hours. Following the general ebb of people, we walked through a public park, chattering angrily. They, like me, could not understand it. However, we relegated our confusion to the future and concentrated on the Taj. Paying the exorbitant entrance fee (750 rps, Indians-40 rps), we entered the short queue for security, underwent an intense search of our bags, and finally entered the complex. The Taj was still invisible, surrounded by thick walls and a glorious entrance gate worthy of adulation itself. Fran and I, being girls, paused for the requisite photos, and then we passed through the aperture, catching our first glimpse of the white perfection of the Taj Mahal. In the soft morning light, it floated on the horizon like a mirage, rising above the corruption and pollution of India with unblemished splendor, a peerless virgin among harlots. It was truly worthy of the centuries of praise heaped upon it, and more, a monument to love, vanity, beauty, and eternity. Wandering among its gardens, fountains, and shady paths, I stared at it in blind adoration. Fran and Piers, while impressed, were a bit less lovestruck by its majesty, but I was hopelessly enamored. We shared the monument with Westerners and Indians alike, all crowding into the interior to view the grave of the long-deceased queen. On our way out, we encountered the cute French couple and their translator from our safari, snapped a photo with them (sighed in envy because they saw 4 tigers on their afternoon safari), and left, lingering over a late breakfast before finding Kamal.

I sighed. Kamal agreed, after receiving an affirmation from his boss, to drive us, all of us, to Delhi. I explained to him that he would have two days of freedom, as I would leave the company for good once we reached the train station in Delhi. But first, we needed train tickets. Kamal, of course, knew of a travel agent, and brought us to their office. Understandably, the trains were fairly full, but the man’s prices still seemed exorbitantly high, 1250 rps for 3AC sleeper class. Imagine a train compartment (without a door, of course) and imagine bunks lining each side. Now, 1 AC has only one bed per side, for a total of 2 in each compartment. 2AC has two on each wall, etc. So 3AC wasn’t exactly first class…but we paid it, because we needed the tickets. It would take an hour for the tour agency to obtain the tickets, so we asked Kamal to drive us to the nearby mall. On the way, he attempted to stop at a marble factory to ‘just look’, but I, in particular, was sick of commissioned stores, and we protested vociferously. He drove on.

We picked up the tickets and got back in the car. Piers and Fran, much less frigid toward the beggars, and purchased a large quantity of pens and candy, and handed them out to the children whenever they ran up to us. It worked quite splendidly.

En route to Delhi is a Sloth Bear Sanctuary that harbors rescued dancing bears. Reading about it in the Lonely Planet, I wanted to stop and asked Kamal if we could. “No. We go straight to Delhi.” Ummm, wasn’t the reason I hired the car because I wanted the freedom to stop where I wanted to stop? I asked, again, more forcefully, and he tersely agreed. The sloth bears were adorable, housed in a veritable fortress of armed guards and barbed wire. Frolicking in their spacious enclosures, the waddled over to the fence when we walked in, puffs of black fur with a honey colored face. As I tentatively reached through the electric fence to pet them, they blew gusts of air at me through puckered lips and sucked gently on my fingers. Awwwww. I could not imagine how anyone could steal them from the wild, brand them, tie them to a leash, and force them to do cruel tricks. Amazingly, the center was funded by the government and run with astonishing efficiency.

The drive to Delhi was uneventful, and we arrived by about 6 for the 11 pm train. Asking Kamal if he could take us to a mall or cinema to while away the hours, he blatantly refused. “Fine, but I do need a bag to put all of my stuff in.” He drove us to the Khan market, dropped us off, and told us to get a bag and hurry back so he could drop us at the station as soon as possible. I think that was the last straw of his attitude and unprofessionalism. The three of us sat in a café for a long time, sipping tea and playing Scrabble. We eventually found an Adidas store as it was closing, bought a duffel bag, and headed back to the car. He drove us to the station, helped us unload the bags, and brought me to the front seat. First, he handed me my promised 1500 rps hotel refund for the last night I was to spend in Delhi (I lost the second night in Agra, which I knew), as the boss had specified. Then, he handed me a driver evaluation. What did he expect? I stepped out of the car to write on the window, though he tried to stop me. “You can write in here.” Shaking my head, I scribbled on the window “Bad attitude, unwilling to work late…” I gave him the folded evaluation, but he proceeded to unfold it and read it in front of me. Awkward. I stood by my evaluation while he called the boss, with whom I spoke and told of my complaints.

Feeling a bit guilty, I gave Kamal 1000 rps tip, much less than the ‘customary’ 10% of the trip fee. His manners and tendency to bring me to commissioned stores, among other things, did not impress me. Finally, the three of us left him, surly and silent, in the car. It was, I’ll confess, a wonderful feeling, to be free. By the end of the trip, I decided I much prefer independent travel to hiring a car and driver. And travel in India is so easy…

Our train arrived on time, amazingly enough. We boarded and found our berths, stowing the luggage underneath the bottom one. Fran crawled onto the top one, I squeezed into the middle one, and Piers took the bottom one. We giggled as we adjusted the sheets and pillow and listened to the other passengers. I eschewed the pillow for my duffel bag, as I had too much luggage to fit underneath our beds. Go figure. The cabin guard served as both watchman against thieves and an alarm clock, and we all dozed during the five hour ride, jolting awake occasionally to the ridiculously loud snorer nearby who also snuffled and breathed like someone in his final hours. At about 4 am, we groggily clambered out of our beds, retrieved the luggage, and piled out of the car into the chilly, pre-dawn air of Haridwar. We haggled for a tuk-tuk and soon arrived on the stop of Hotel Om Deluxe, recommended by Lonely Planet. Piers inspected the rooms, motioned us in, and we trudged up the stairs to our 10 dollar a night accommodations. It sufficed, with dirty sheets, a wheezy fan, and ice cold showers. The other two rested while I attempted to book a safari for that morning. To no avail, and I wandered the streets in darkness for an hour, observing the glittering waters of the Ganges, and finally obtaining a safari car around 8. Which, had I been in my right mind and not exhausted, would have realized was too late to see any tigers. But I went anyways to the nearby park. It was beautiful, at least, and there were only two other tourists. I arrived on the back of a motorbike, but took a tuk-tuk back with two Germans. Back in town, we swear we saw a dead man sprawled on the street, flies buzzing around his face.

Unsuccessful in my tiger quest, I ran into Piers and Fran, disgustingly cheerful after having slept, and he all had lunch together, and afterwards I showered (in the ice cold water) and slept while they toured. Together, the three of us headed down to the Ganges for a sunset ceremony, where, we hoped to find burning bodies. You see, Hindus come to the Ganges to die. Or, at least they go to certain towns on it to die, like Varanasi further south. Espy as we could, no burning pyres or human remains manifested themselves, and we sat on the banks of the Ganges, surrounded by Indian pilgrims, and wondered what was happening. I still wonder what was happening. In the end, we observed a reverent, and innocuous prayer ceremony, where pilgrims lit woven baskets of reeds and sent them down the river. Beautiful in the gloaming. At least the Ganges was clean in Haridwar-I stood in its frigid waters, straight from the Himalayas, and countless pilgrims immersed themselves in its holy properties. Haridwar was the most ‘authentic’ city I visited-I went for almost a day without seeing another white person. There were no tourist stores, few people spoke English, and most people were there to pay homage to the river, not extort money.

My plane departed the next night at midnight, and I still needed transportation back to Delhi. The trains, supposedly, were full, so I booked a ‘deluxe’ bus. However, before I left, Fran, Piers and I attempted one final safari at 6 am in Cheela, the local park. Despite our best efforts, our promise of 1000 rps to the driver if he found us a tiger, we failed. Or did we? We saw some wild elephants, the cold beauty of dawn rising over the misty mountains, we saw India in its purest form, unspoiled, wild, free.

I left Fran and Piers in Haridwar, took the bus back to Delhi, arrived in time to grab dinner, catch a tuk-tuk to the airport, not get my missing luggage, and board the plane back home. Still waiting for my suitcase J

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