Sunday, June 22, 2008

Adventures in India: Heart and Soul

I arrived this morning in Old Delhi at 8:00 AM, and found a hotel for the day. I fly out this evening, but it is worth the money to have a place to relax until I head to the airport at 9:00 PM. Old Delhi is the very heart of the chaos of India, but I am finally getting in-tune with the pace of life here. I find it invigorating and exciting, although at first it would have seemed hectic and stressful. Old Delhi is crowded, chaotic, and bustling with life. It is filled with shops and merchants- like a huge outdoor mall. This is where Indians come to buy, sell, and trade everything imaginable. There is an electric feeling in the air - this is India hard at work, with no time to amuse idle tourists. I met no other gringos on the streets of Old Delhi and, not surprisingly, was not hassled or bothered in any way. So different from the touristy Paharganj with its many touts. When I return to India, I would stay here rather than in New Delhi.

Unfortunately, without tourists there are no sit-down restaurants, only street vendors. I found a compromise at the "Parantha Wali Gali," which is the closest thing to Indian fast food that I have found. I sat at a road-side table and was served a tray with various sauces and entrees, like a small thali (everyone gets the same tray). Then you order what type of stuffed parantha you would like. A parantha is like a thick pita bread that is made by rolling fresh vegetables and spices into flattened dough, then baking it in a tandoor oven. I tried peas, asparagus, and cheese. They are used to mop up the sauces and food on the tray. It was very spicy with hot curries, but delicious.

I spent the day walking the main street, which was closed to traffic and being decorated with orange flowers for the Prime Minister's visit this evening. I watched the elaborate preparation of floats for a parade and toured a couple of the sights: the Red Fort and the Jami Masjid mosque. The Red Fort is an enormous structure built from red sandstone with thick walls that bulge with turrets and towers. It is so large that inside it feels more like a college campus than a fort. Various buildings, temples, and mosques lie amidst beautiful gardens. Except when looking over the high walls, you would never know that you are inside a huge fortress. Outside are many food and souvenir vendors and a small carnival with rides.

From the fort I traveled south down a busy market street to the Jami Masjid mosque, the largest in India. Large crowds of Muslim pilgrims were waiting to pass through the front gate, as this is the beginning of the Islamic Urs festival. Muslims from around Asia are here for the next week to celebrate and pray. I managed to get inside by jumping into the middle of a group that were heading through the gate. Inside, a huge courtyard is surrounded by four walls with high minarets at each corner. Wearing shoes is forbidden - they must be carried or left outside. The main prayer hall faces Mecca to the west and is crowned by three huge onion-shaped domes. The courtyard is full of Muslim families and devout pilgrims praying and socializing.

I climbed up a narrow spiral staircase to the top of a minaret, which rises hundreds of feet above the city streets. The view of Delhi sprawling as far as the eye can see in all directions is amazing. At the top is a circular platform about 10 feet in diameter, surrounded by a low wall. Outside the wall is a narrow walkway with no railing. Both the platform and walkway were full of people. It was rather unnerving being up there, especially with people sitting on the walkway with their legs dangling into the air. Everyone was very friendly; they introduced themselves and had many questions for me. They all wanted to know where I have been in India, and what I thought about each place, where I am from, what it is like in America, am I married or have children, etc. I stayed at the top for about an hour talking and having a great time. I began to think: I am here on this planet, in India, in Old Delhi, in the Jami Masjid mosque during a Muslim holy festival, at the top of the highest tower, interacting with the Muslim pilgrims. I felt as if I was in the center of many circles; really in the heart of things. A fitting conclusion to my trip, and a great travel memory.

Adventures in India: A Few Minutes with Andy Rooney

There are probably a couple of pessimists out there who are thinking, "It can't be such a great place. He just isn't telling about the bad parts." Well, that's partly true, so now is my chance to say "Don't you really hate it when..." about my trip. On all of these issues, my anticipation of the problem was far greater than the actual problem, but I will list some of the frustrating, annoying, and unpleasant things that my fellow travelers and I encounter in India. In no way do any of these pose serious reasons not to travel. But in order to achieve the highs, you have to have some lows. Here is a short list:

Congestion: Probably the worst part of the trip. In big cities it is dangerous and maddening. Even in small towns, jeeps and motorcycles will plough through narrow streets filled with people, honking their horn and expecting you to get out of the way. The fumes (walking or riding) in the cities are another really nasty side effect of all the traffic. To stay in a large city for a while will eventually lead to health problems. Strangely, the Indians don't really have a grasp of how bad this is. Delhi recently banned smoking inside public buildings, even though I have read that staying in Delhi for one day is equivalent to smoking 20 cigarettes. That's India.

Touts: The second worse thing. They are only in places where tourists go in large numbers. In the untouristed towns or parts of town, I have had absolutely no problem, so this is partly our fault. The people are very poor compared to a rich tourist walking by, and they need all the business they can get to survive, but it would make things much more enjoyable not to be hassled. Usually, after a day or two, they recognize you and stop asking you to come in a shop, or buy something, or take a ride in their rickshaw, etc.

Dirt and Washing: Try washing your clothes for one month by hand and you will know what I mean. My pack is filthy beyond description. My shoes are filthy. My clothes smell because they don't get completely dry. India is very hard on your possessions. My camera is broken, my watch is long gone, my guidebook looks like it's been through a war, my glasses are scratched, my boots are coming apart, etc.

Beggars: I could write a whole chapter on this alone. Once again, they only appear in numbers where tourists congregate. No tourists, no beggars. Most of the time it isn't a big problem. Drop a few coins in their cup as you pass by. Dharamsala was really bad, however: aggressive and relentless. You can't give to them all, and it is a moral dilemma whether to give or not. Giving supports begging as a way of making a living. I try to be generous, but you still can't help feeling bad. Some (after giving to them on a regular basis) are actually very friendly and greet you with "Hello, Sir, How are you" every time you walk by. I appreciate that. But many are pathetic and dirty. It seems sad to say that you can block out disfigured and disabled people, but after you've seen so many horrors (missing limbs, lepers, burn victims, etc.) you have to or you'll go crazy.

Travel: Getting from city to city is a real pain in the ass. My words might even be stronger if I was writing this on a bus that has sat for two hours for no apparent reason, but as I write this I'm happy and settled in. When in transit, you really wonder if it is worth it all. When in a town, you quickly forget the 20-hour ordeal you just went through and you'd do it all over again.

Sickness: I personally have had very good luck, but telling "getting sick" stories is a favorite pastime among travelers. It seems that the longer you stay, the more likely you are to get sick. Every day you roll the dice. Some get sick for the first two weeks in every country. I personally have trouble the last couple days and a week after I get back. The vast majority have nothing worse than the skitters, but there are always the horror stories.

We'll I could go on, but I won't. Those are the main things. It has definitely been worth the problems and hassles. I will also add that I never felt afraid or threatened in any way. Violent crime is virtually unknown here. By 1000 to 1, the biggest danger is being involved in a traffic accident.

Adventures in India: Rickshaw Ride

I have been asked to explain rickshaw rides in more detail. Please let me know if you don't understand something or have questions!

An auto-rickshaw is perhaps the most dangerous (but exciting) method of transportation in the large cities. It is like a large tricycle, with handlebars that steer a small wheel in front, and 2 small wheels on an axle in the back. It is powered by a loud 2-stroke engine that spits out nasty diesel fumes. Very polluting. There is a bench behind the driver, with a metal floor, ceiling and roof, a windshield in front, and open sides. The drivers weave through unbelievable congestion, trying to go as fast as possible and cut in front of everyone and anything, including large busses and trucks. Horns blast continuously, each a variation of "Get out of my way, I'm coming through." Probably the most dangerous thing I have done. You can't imagine how bad the congestion, traffic and fumes are on the streets. Even walking can be hazardous. I would hate to see one of these tin boxes get hit by a truck.

Cycle-rickshaws are a 3-wheel bicycle with a bench and luggage rack on the back. They are slow, and generally don't get involved in the really bad congestion. A good bet for short distances when you've got a lot to carry.

Even in a taxi or bus, the streets are scary.

Adventures in India: The Life of Kings

"Turn off your mind, relax, and float down-stream." - John Lennon, Tomorrow Never Knows.

The street life at night in India is just on the other side of reality. I had thought that there was nothing left in India that could shock me; surely by now I'd dived into the deepest and darkest of its waters. However, I've learned that there is always something more unimaginable around the next corner when you least expect it.

A nine-day festival is currently underway called Dussehra, dedicated to the goddess Durga (so says the guidebook). During the day I've seen a couple half-baked parades, so I wasn't expecting much. However last night was a real treat. At 9:00 after leaving the Venus restaurant (and an excellent meal) with two new Australian friends, we came across a stage set up in the middle of the street, composed of brightly colored cloth on a metal frame. Hundreds of small children sat quietly in front of the stage, while rowdy boys full of energy fought in the rear. They were here to see the "Ramayana", a sort of religious vaudeville show. We sat at a chai stall with a good view of the crowd and stage, and ordered some spiced chai. The show didn't actually start until 10:30, but the constant sensory stimulation formed an endless stream of fantastic images. It is like walking in a dream. There is no possible way to comprehend each individual image. To try would be to head down the path to madness. This is what causes severe cultural shock, but after a few weeks here I can handle a small dose. Here is sampling of some of the images that float by:

Children play and scream; brightly painted Hindu deities dance with fire on the stage; snake charmers show off their cobras for money; music from street musicians and loud speakers fills the air; camels stroll by led by small children; cows and goats wander aimlessly eating everything left on the ground; packs of wild dogs run through the streets; a white mule sits in front of the stage, to be chased off by the actors; gringos in hippie clothes stop to watch the show and smoke; touts approach all to sell everything from chai to motorcycles. I really wouldn't have been surprised to see wild elephants, circus clowns or bikers on big Harleys approach and fade into the night. The play is completely unfathomable to a westerner, although mesmerizing. Hallucinogenic drugs would be completely unnecessary here: how would you know when they've kicked in?

I walked back to hotel with the play (and the craziness) still raging at midnight. I couldn't sleep, so I went up to the rooftop terrace and talked with two gentlemen in their 60s from Belgium. They have been travelling together for years, and take every other trip with their wives. They didn't say which type of trip they liked better, but we agreed that the two are very different. They were friendly, talkative, and full of life - true role-models.

I don't know if every night will be like this. Part of independent travel is pushing the limits of what you think you are capable of; to come out smiling no matter what is thrown at you. I'll only have one more night of the festival before heading back to Delhi and home. I think that will be for the best, although many stay in Pushkar far longer than they intended. There is a soothing and soporific side to this town that causes one to linger.

I'll write again in two days before heading home.

Adventures in India: Tales from the Hump

Well, I can cross one more thing from the long list of things that I have always wanted to do: I have now ridden on a camel. Like many of the things on that list, it isn't something I would do again; at least not until the discomfort in my hindquarters has receded to a distant memory.

Getting on and off is quite alarming. You go from ground level to 12 feet in the air in two motions, first thrown forward as the rear legs are unfolded, then backward as the front half straightens out. Takes a bit of getting used to. I had heard that you can learn everything that you ever wanted to know about a camel in three hours, so I booked a trip from 4:00 to 7:00 PM. It is very much a tourist thing to do, and I felt rather ridiculous riding out of town. I had never seen a camel before coming here. They walk the narrow lanes and sit in camps outside of town, so I've seen many by now. They are a comical animal, much taller than you would expect; an odd combination of 10' legs, a short body with hump, and a huge curving neck with a bobbing head.

A 12 year old boy who is my guide leads us out of town, where he hops on behind me for the rest of the journey. We cross the scrub desert, over small dunes and hills. The desert is green and filled with bushes and flowers after the recent monsoon. I received more than a few scratches from long thorns on the tall trees. It is a stunning landscape to ride through. After an hour and a half of walking, trotting, and running over the dunes (each of which throws you up and down with varying intensity), we took a 1/2 hr. break at a deep well, with several other tourists also out on safaris. I passed out the last of my baseball cards to the young guides who meet here to play games and smoke.

We headed out again, stopping after a while on a small hilltop to watch the sunset. It was overcast, and very windy, but we could still see the sun setting red over the distant hills. My guide taught me a very enjoyable game that I have seen the boys in town playing. Each of us had nine stones, and played on a grid painted on the rocky ground with a red stone. It involves moving your stones around the grid; if you make three in a row, you can remove one of your opponent's stones. He beat me soundly every time. I didn't put up much of a fight. It was a fun game, and I can now use it to break the ice and interact with local children when I see them playing. I'm sure they would find it amusing to beat a big gringo like me.

Riding back into town in the dark on the top of a camel is a grand way to make a spectacular entrance. Kids wave and follow, and adults smile. I felt like a little kid again. I suppose that a lot of what I do when I travel is acting out things that an imaginative child would dream of doing. It certainly has the air of a summer vacation where you can do anything you desire.

The town is very enjoyable: small, beautiful and relatively traffic free (many tourists rent bicycles to get around). It sits on the north shore of Lake Pushkar, which is a famous Hindu pilgrimage site. To bathe in these waters is to wash away your sins. Next month is the Pushkar Camel Fair, which attracts thousands of Indian and western tourists. The hotels are booked solid, and tent camps ring the lake. As is it very expensive, crowded, hectic and chaotic during the festival, I am happy to enjoy the town in its relaxed state. The fair would definitely be something to see, however.

My hotel is run by an extremely friendly family who often join the tourists on the rooftop terrace to chat and provide information. It is also the first hot shower that I have had in India (now I feel like an American again; a hot shower each morning is great). A big room with my own bath with a comfortable bed for $1.75 a night.

Hanging out in cafes and meeting fellow travelers is the most common activity in town. There are many shops to buy jewelry and clothes (and many aggressive touts as well). Walking the main street and winding side streets is a fine way to spend the day. A circular route winds through Ghats, ashrams, and temples to a bridge over the southern part of the lake. From there, you can see the entire town reflected in the lake. Stunning! Cities in Rajasthan have a definite Muslim influence, and feel more a part of the Mid-East than Asia.

Here's an pretty good travel story: I was walking out west of town on dirt roads on my way to a mountain-top temple, when the vendor of a small shop called me over. Most of the time I just ignore these people, as one is approached continuously in town. But I stopped, and he asked to see my guidebook. Showing off the guidebook is a great way to break the ice and meet people. They love looking at the maps and, if they understand English well enough, read about their hometown. Many have never seen a map of their village, and love to leaf through the book and ask me questions. I showed them the cover, which has a picture of a row of Hindu women standing in Lake Pushkar during the Puja festival. This caused great excitement and attracted quite a crowd. Men walking past were flagged down, and the book was continuously passed around. I finally asked someone if they recognized anyone on the cover. "Yes, this is my mother," he said, pointing to the middle figure. "And this lady lives right there," he said, pointing to a nearby house. I told them that perhaps a million people own this book, and that his mother is famous. That made them all laugh. I took my leave and continued my hike. What the long-term effects of that meeting are, I can only guess.

Walking the streets at night is a must; I'll describe that in the next message.

Adventures in India: Long Journey into Night

I am now in Pushkar, on the edge of the Thar Desert, in the state of Rajasthan. I haven't had much time to explore, but it seems to be a very relaxed town (for India). The sun is merciless in its intensity, but I think it's only in the 80s, and it's very pleasant in the shade. The oppressive humidity of Delhi is finally gone.

I headed out of Dharamsala on an overnight bus two days ago. After a jolting and exhausting 12 hour ride, I finally arrived in Delhi at 6:00 am. The bus is the easiest and quickest way to get around, but it is very uncomfortable compared to the trains. I have finally experienced my first Dhaba (India's version of the truck stop). A lively group of restaurants and shops that straddle the road every hour or so. Food is served from a dozen huge stainless steel kettles that cook over kerosene fires. You just point to what you want, and your food is served instantly at long tables shared by all.

I purchased a train ticket to Ajmer at the Delhi train station, with the usual hassles and run-around (bus tickets are so much easier). I spent the day wandering around the main bazaar of Paharganj and reading\eating\drinking in a rooftop restaurant near the station. Delhi is really getting on my nerves this time around, with relentless touts that try to attract my attention everywhere I go. Has the city changed, or my attitude?

After a completely insane auto-rickshaw ride to a rail station on the edge of town, I was at last on my way. Two young Indian men kept me occupied by talking about their lives and asking me questions about the US for a couple hours before the train left (we were all on the same train).

Night trains in India may be slow, aggravating, scary, frustrating, and many other things, but they are certainly not dull. I found my seat, and was instantly surrounded by new friends eager to talk and ask questions. It can be a little alarming when your sleeping berth (which should hold six passengers) swells to twenty or more people as the train departs. You move down as four sit on the bench, then five, then six, with a couple people in each overhead bunk, and a dozen crowding in the aisle. After moving for a little while, the train stops and more people crowd in. Even though the train is so full that people are hanging out the doors, at each stop food vendors, beggars, chai and newspaper sellers, sadhus, and sweepers work their way down the already crowded aisles.

In our car, a deck of cards is broken out, and a bizarre and unexplainable game ensues. Although only three people actually hold cards, at least a dozen more are involved in all aspects of play. The only rules that I could discover are that you must slap your cards down on the suitcase (used as a table) and that each card played must be followed by intense shouting and arguing by the players and spectators. Cards are picked up and put back in hands, and others played instead. I could not determine any rhyme or reason as far as scoring or who was winning. Cards are put away and food is gotten out and shared by all. Jokes and stories are told, with much exaggeration and laughing. Then starts the singing, with one person leading and all joining in on the chorus, with banging on the walls to provide accompaniment. The prospect of a quiet night of sleep seems far off at 10:30 at night. I am the only gringo on board, and it is a fantastic and rare opportunity to observe Indian life. Adding to the surreal feeling is the fact that all of this is in Hindi, and I cannot understand a word of it.

Eventually the rowdy crowd gets off and we are joined by two Muslim men to make a total of six in our compartment. So far, the Muslims have seemed very reserved towards western tourists, and I have not even spoken to one. These two were determined to make up for the rest, however. Unbelievably kind and friendly, they told me all about themselves and asked many questions about myself and my life back home. A strange mix of Hindu, Muslim, Sikh and Christian religions were present, with discussions on many topics, including our religious differences. Haji Muhammad Ibrahim, the older of the two brothers, showed me his prayer books written in Arabic, and told me that Muslims also believed in Adam and Eve and the angel Gabriel, and that we should be loving each other and not fighting. I had to agree with him. They were generous and intelligent (speaking six languages), and have traveled the world. I showed them postcards from home and pictures of my family and friends. We exchanged addresses and I told them I would visit them if I came back to India.

The night's excitement wasn't over yet. Just after leaving a small station, we stopped and fury of activity surrounded the train with everyone shouting, police with rifles running next to the tracks, and flashlights shining in windows. I first thought that perhaps someone had been run over. Then right next to our car, two men were pulled from the top of the train and were surrounded by the police and crowds. They had been train hopping, I was told; jumping on the roof for a free ride. They were taken off by the police and we resumed our journey without incident.

I had a good night's sleep for the first time (on a train, at least), and eventually arrived in Ajmer at 8:30 AM. Ajmer is a holy Muslim city, and the train was full of pilgrims on their way to a religious festival. My two friends invited me to stop by the Dargah mosque and attend the festival with them. I'll have to try to stop by and find them in a day or two. I took a short bus to Pushkar, and was picked up by a very friendly young man who took me to his parent's hotel. Although you have to be very skeptical of hotel touts, he actually ended up being very nice and quite helpful. He actually was the son of the owners, and was running the hotel for them. He has proven to be an excellent resource. Sometimes you get lucky.

I'll write about Pushkar in a couple days. I saw my first camel today. Camel safaris are the thing to do here, and I may try an all day excursion before leaving.

Adventures in India: Monks and Gambits

I've finally finished my four days of classes with Saswot. It was long and sometimes tiring, but worthwhile on many levels. My classmates were four Australians who were very friendly, funny and a joy to be with. I find that after a few days with them, I start speaking with an American/Australian accent. Studying the various accents and dialects from around the world is a very enjoyable hobby of mine, and after travelling for a while, I can almost always place someone's country after a few minutes of talking with them. Something to do.

Saswot has been a great friend while I've been here and I will continue to help him today and tonight, but I must leave Dharamsala tomorrow. Just an hour ago when I was in his room talking, an English woman stopped by asking about the class. It turns out she works with the blind back home and agreed to help him while she's here. One "staff" member leaves, and another arrives. Amazingly, he depends on this year round for all his needs. He actually has a few long-time staff members here who help him when they are in town. It is a thrill to be in the inner-circle of something. When discussing things at night with him, many old and new friends drop by to talk or are on a mission of some sort. In this way I've met many people that I would ordinarily not have met, or at least not on this level. I've been well paid for my troubles. My class was free, and my education while I've been here has been far beyond the typical tourist taking classes.

I took the afternoon and night off yesterday (yes, I get a day off once in a while), and spent the afternoon in the Sunrise chai stall playing chess. It is dimly lit, and smoky, with yellow photographs and old guitars on the walls. Picture a picnic table and kitchen shoved into a phone booth. The chai-wallah is crammed up front. Behind him are two long benches astride a long battered wooden table with a couple of dirty lamps overhead. Very warm and cozy, with the atmosphere of an illegal gambling house on the edge of town.

I played well, and won all my games. As I won, people kept buying me more chai, which by the way was delicious, spiced with cinnamon, ginger, and cardamom. After a while, the numerous on-lookers started to gang up on me, planning their moves and helping my opponent. One old gentleman (who I swear was the spitting image of Albert Einstein - complete with German accent), who was very good, was eventually calling the shots. It was an exciting and memorable game, but I had a sneak attack and was victorious. All agreed that an afternoon of good chess was a fine way to spend the day. People come and go, crawling over others to get a seat on the benches. It really goes beyond what we think of "people-watching". More like "people-involving."

I watched "7 years in Tibet" at a video-cinema at night, which was a good time. About 25 people sit in a large room and essentially watch a TV with a stereo sound system with the movie playing on a VCR. The traditional theaters here only show Indian films, which I've heard can be a bewildering but amusing experience for a westerner. People shout at the screen, bring food like a picnic, sing along to the music; more like a family outing at a carnival, I suppose.

Today I walked down the hill towards the lower town and walked by and around the large Tibetan monastery and temple, which is also the home of the Dalai Lama. The path leaves the main road and winds around the mountain on a circular path passing many small shrines and impromptu temples. The temple and monastery are surrounded by prayer wheels, which the Buddhists turn as they go by and chant prayers. They are set about 1 ft. apart, and there are hundreds encircling the temple. I didn't go into the monastery. Even without the temple, it would be a fantastic walk with indescribable mountain views and great bird watching. I know that sounds a bit silly, but it is like being inside a nature documentary. Hawks, eagles, falcons, and brightly colored tropical birds fly all around. In the early evening, they circle endlessly on the updrafts that rise from the valley.

I also continued to the Tibetan library, museum, and government complex. The most fascinating things in the museum were ancient tapestries with paintings of incredible detail. Kind of a Buddhist "Where's Waldo." Every square inch is painted with scenes of daily life and Buddhist deities. Everywhere you look is something new and fantastic. I think that I have seen something like this on PBS once. The rest of the museum and government complex wasn't actually all that interesting, but it is incredible to be here in the heart of things. You can just walk around, even have a Coke at a little stand. I met an American family with three kids who were over here for a year volunteering with Amnesty International - very positive people. What an experience for the kids. Beats school, anyway.

Will head out of town by bus to Delhi tomorrow, and then into the desert of Rajasthan.

Adventures in India: Update from Dharamsala

Not too much is new. I've been to two yoga classes, today and yesterday. Very exhausting! I am starting to get in shape and trying to learn how to relax. It really is a very pleasant and enjoyable activity. I will continue with classes for two more days and learn more exercises, meditations and self-healing techniques.

I've been busy doing work for Saswot and just hanging out with him. I've never met anyone who emanates positive energy like he does. I think the secret to his success will be the fact that you feel happy just being with him. I hope I didn't paint a picture of a hard-luck case who tells everyone about his problems all the time and begs for help. That is far from the case! He is a very exciting and optimistic person. He is also fun to be with and is a great conversationalist. I have learned a lot about many things. He's really no different from any other friend (he hates to be thought of as a leader, guru, teacher, etc. - just a good friend). If I had met him back home, we'd go Frisbee golfing together. I'd have to keep pointing him towards the hole, but I think he'd do alright.

I saw a one hour documentary about the Buddhist philosophy and rituals involving death. It explained attitudes and ceremonies used to prepare people for death and to help them reincarnate - very interesting. It was called "The Tibetan Book of the Dead." I wish I had more time for movies and learning opportunities.

I'm finally getting the hang of the town. I've met many friendly folks and now meet people that I know regularly in the streets So much to do. One month is not even enough time to get your feet wet here. Six months to one year is the most common length of people's trips.

I'll hopefully get to see the Great Indian Desert next week.

Adventures in India: The Silent Victim

I'd like to tell you about how I got drafted into doing some impromptu volunteer work here in Dharamsala.

A couple days ago, I was walking around town in the afternoon trying to find some information on taking yoga classes in the mornings. I was heading to a large institute that has advertisements around town. I passed a sign on a hotel wall that offered classes for four days, five hours each day. That sounded pretty good to me, as most classes were for two weeks or so, for two to three hours a day. The sign said to go to the Shangri-la hotel near the temple and ask for Saswot Sourav in room #7 from 3:00 to 4:00 for more information. It was 4:15, so I decided to look him up right away. On the way to his hotel, I also saw a notice that said that help was needed with typing and computer work for an organization called "Universal Family Peace Initiative". At first I thought "maybe I should offer my help," but I quickly changed to "why get involved. I'm here to enjoy myself." The address for contact was the same hotel room. I figured I'd just get the class info and leave.

I managed to find him, and he had quite a story to tell (told to me over the next few days). He had been studying yoga from advanced teachers since he was 14 (he is 35 now). He is very intelligent and pursued his studies with great passion. He began teaching in his 20s. Nine years ago, when he was 26, he had an accident and was blinded. To put it mildly, this was disastrous to his way of life. There is no social security, welfare, disability, or even much compassion for the disabled here in India. Nearly all disabled and elderly who have no one else to support them become beggars.

However, the Dalai Lama befriended him and had his personal doctors treat him with Tibetan folk medicine. He met the Dalai Lama each day and was his honored guest. In addition to being blind, his eyes hurt him constantly. At first the treatments seemed to be helping, but then suddenly he lost all energy and couldn't even walk or eat. He managed to get to a modern hospital in Delhi where they analyzed the medicine and found that it contained mercury and would kill anyone who took it long enough. He eventually got over that, but now had no one to support him, and was forced to beg in the streets.

He was quite different from the usual street beggar; he was intelligent, driven, talented and wanted more than anything to get off the street and teach yoga again. Through the help of generous western tourists, he managed to get a place to teach, put up some posters, get a place to stay, and begin teaching. Eventually he managed to get into computers and now uses the Internet and e-mail to expand his business. All of this has been accomplished by approaching people in the street and asking for their help. They guy who setup his web site spent 50 hours of his own time on it. Just to read and send e-mail he must find a volunteer to help him. Unfortunately, even if he finds helpful people, they eventually leave and he must start over with new people. I really can't imagine having to rely on strangers like this on a regular basis. He cannot even go to a store or walk down the street without a guide.

Back to my meeting with him: We talked about his classes for a while. It actually wasn't exactly what I was looking for; although I liked him right away, I thought of looking around some more. He asked what I do back home, and when I said I work with computers, he smiled and of course asked if I could help him with various things. I said yes, I would do what I could while I was in town. Actually, unless you get involved with classes or some activity, there isn't that much to do here. I really don't mind donating a few hours a day to helping him.

I'm glad I did. He really is a regular guy and seems just like any other friend I would meet. A great person to hang out with and talk to, who is full of information on many topics. I have been reading and typing e-mail messages for him, organizing his database of students and contacts, helping him write some newsletters, and putting together and printing some new notices to put up around town. I really hope he makes it, but he is fighting a losing battle; in order to market his classes, he must go further into debt.

He frequently writes to his international friends to help him get medicines and to spread the word about his classes. He even asked if I could contact organizations back home that give away computers and seeing-eye dogs.

I may take a couple days of classes from him. He is supposed to be quite a good teacher, although I have already learned a lot in payment for my time. He says he will write his autobiography some day and call it "The Silent Victim". It would certainly be one hell of a story.

Adventures in India: Gringos in the Mist

Greetings from Dharamsala! I've been having an enjoyable stay so far. It can take a while to explore this town and understand the culture and everything that is going on.

So far, I spend part of each day walking the mountain roads visiting small villages in the area. The thin air and steep grades make the going slow, but it is peaceful and beautiful. There are few tourists out walking the roads, but I pass many Tibetans commuting between the villages. You meet Tibetan Buddhist monks frequently in town and between villages. They are fascinating with their maroon robes, shaven heads, and often black horn-rimmed glasses. I suspect they must all use the same tailor, barber, and optometrist. A hello or good morning and a smile always gets a cheerful response.

A few people stay in the villages near town: to escape the touristy feel of Dharamsala, for the great views, and to enjoy the peace and quiet. And, since there aren't many westerners in these villages, they are all very friendly, and I always join who ever is hanging out and talk for a while before heading out again.

Each morning is sunny and great for hikes. In the afternoon, the clouds roll in, covering the town in a thick fog. It really amazing to see the hawks and other large birds circling in the mists above and below me as I watch from the hotel terrace. Occasionally, the sun shines through the clouds and lights up a small circle of houses that seem to float in the air. Gringos get out their guitars, sitars, flutes and tablas and play at my hotel and nearby, providing a free concert in the afternoon and sometimes all evening.

Dharamsala is different than I expected. More touristy, with many shops catering to western tourists, selling t-shirts, jewelry, potato chips, candy bars, toilet paper (well, it's not all bad), etc. There are many young gringos who basically seem to be looking for a good time; there are bars, dancing, video movie houses, parties, etc. At night the streets are full of young people, meeting friends and making new ones. A lively social scene.

The Tibetan library has several lectures and workshops each day on Tibetan culture and current issues. There is also a video theater that shows documentaries on Buddhism and the Tibetan way of life. Individual courses are also possible. Touring the Dalai Lama's complex is also very interesting. I hope to explore some of these options next week.

The Tibetans who have settled here are very progressive. The town is prosperous, clean, and well organized (a rare thing in India). There is decent sanitation, a ban on burning wood (locals must buy kerosene from a vendor with a large tank, who, every time that I have walked by, is smoking). They have a welfare system for incoming refugees, free education, extensive computer and technical education, and a home for orphaned children. I have heard that they are excellent at communications, marketing, public relations, and embrace the Internet and computer technology as a way to educate the world about their cause. In short, they have been very successful here. This has been a result of hard work and a lot of money coming in from tourism and international support. This has caused many Indians to be critical of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan community here. There is certainly more going on than first appears, with complicated politics involving India, China and the US. It would take a long time to understand the situation completely.

I have been enjoying myself by meeting people, hanging out, and have also been doing some hard work, as I will explain in the next message.

Adventures in India: The Days of Wine and Roses

After two years of dreaming and one year of planning, I am finally in Dharamsala, India, residence of the Dalai Lama, home of the Tibet government in exile, and one of the great travel destinations of the world.

The trip here took 23 hours, but was not without adventure or highlights. I managed to get a train ticket to Dharamsala in Haridwar. The Indians have the same attitude about waiting in lines as they do about driving: Every man for themselves. After body-blocking some old men and fending off other line-cutters with both arms, I managed to shove my paperwork at the clerk before everyone else pushing around me. A couple minutes later, I had a ticket in hand.

I was told that the train would leave from platform 3, so I crossed to the far side of the station on the elevated crosswalk. There was no train, so I sat down to wait. An elderly Indian man joined me. He was also travelling on the same train. He was heading to Jammu, in the state of Kashmir, to return home to his family after working in Haridwar for a while. We chatted for a while, until he asked someone about our train. It had actually been sitting on platform 1 all the time. "We must hurry," he says, as we ran down the platform, climbed across two tracks, leapt onto platform 1, and jumped onto the first car just as the train was pulling out. I couldn't have planned it any better.

At first the journey went very well. Train travel is very pleasurable, exciting, and romantic. I'm not a train-buff myself, but I do enjoy it (when we are moving anyway). After about an hour, our car was dropped off at a junction station. Then we waited. And waited. And waited. Then waited some more. I eventually figured out that we had been dumped off and another train would pick us up for the rest of the journey. Obviously, they were late (which happens frequently). I watched the baby monkeys play on the idle trains and eat food from the platform. It got dark, and still no activity. I hesitate to leave a train and walk around because you never know when it will leave. Not knowing what was going on was definitely the worst part. People got their dinner, and just hung out. I eventually climbed up in the sleeping berth and rested. Finally, I felt the train jerk as we were hooked up to the connecting train. I haven't been as happy on my trip before or since. At 11:00 PM, after only 6 hours of waiting, we were on our way.

I managed to sleep on and off that night. In the morning I joined my friend from the platform, and we laughed at our misfortune and talked a long while. He had two children and two grandsons. I gave him a set of dominos and a stack of baseball cards to give to them. We exchanged addresses and agreed to write. He wanted me to come visit him, but he lives in Kashmir, and I will not be able to. The trains may be slow, with long delays, but it is one of the best places to meet working Indians and see how they live and travel.

Arriving in Pathankot, I took a local bus that stopped every time someone wanted to get on or off. It was supposed to take three hours, but took five to reach Dharamsala. I did get to know a young Indian boy (about 17) who had worked for a while to pay for two weeks of travel in India. He would eventually reach Calcutta after visiting various places.

The mountain roads were worse than I expected. I had imagined a reasonably decent two lane road most of the way. At times a decent one lane road would have been comforting. When the road is straight, vehicles pass each other by pulling off onto the gravel shoulder. When heading into a blind curve with no shoulder, the bus honks and barrels through. If two vehicles meet on the curves, the smaller on has to back up until they can pass each other. The best advice is to not watch the road ahead, but look out your side window. This isn't much better - most of the time you look down the steep mountain side which drops off at the road's edge. But the driver navigates these roads every day and wants to get home as much as I do. We made it without mishap -there are so many different religions represented on this bus that someone up there must be looking out for us. Accidents are rare, but they do happen.

We arrived into the lower town (1400m) about 3:00 PM, and I caught a shared jeep to the upper town (2400m, also called McLeodganj), only a few km away. It turns out that I could have doubled the cost and halved the time it took to get here by booking a 1st class deluxe bus. I will do this on the way back to Delhi. It is clearly a more sane option, but you do isolate yourself from the people that way.

The town is really amazing. It is built onto the side of a steep forested mountain. I have climbed thousands of steps to get around so far. All roads wind back and forth on incredibly steep grades. The two towns are 1000m apart in elevation, but are only 3 km away via the steep road, or 9 km on the not-so-steep road.

I got a great hotel on the upper part of town (by climbing many stairs and steps). About $2 a night with hot water in buckets. Very clean and probably the best hotel so far. I'm on the 2nd floor, and there are two more floors with rooms above me, then three more balconies above that, all built into the side of the mountain. The view from the upper terrace looks down over the two towns, into river gorges, and over the lush mountain valleys. I probably don't need to say that it is truly fantastic.

There are many western travelers here but, surprisingly, there are as many Asian tourists and pilgrims. Next to me in the hotel is a man about my age with his wife and two young kids. All ages, races, nationalities, backgrounds, and lifestyles converge here. Old hippie expatriates have lived here for years, migrating south in the winter and north again in the summer. A fertile soil for stimulating conversation and exchanging ideas.

So far I have just wandered around town. You can get any type of food here (I had apple pancakes this morning) and it is quite inexpensive. They have classes in yoga, meditation, Tibetan Buddhism, massage, astrology... Probably even advanced skateboarding if you look hard enough. I'll stay a week before moving on, or longer if I'm enjoying myself.

As usual, the more gringos in town, the harder it is to meet people, but I had dinner with some people that I met in Delhi a couple weeks ago. It was great to have some friends again to talk to.

Adventures in India: Day Hikes and Night Walks

Morning walk:
Heading out before 6:30 you can see the town as if there were no tourists (they are still sleeping). The locals can reclaim their streets and are busy getting ready for the day. Teams of mules and horses loaded with packs are driven through the streets. Street vendors who have to carry their entire store with them day and night are setting up along the side of the roads. Store vendors who only have to move things inside at night are moving display cases out onto the street and hanging everything else from awnings to attract passers-by. Men push huge carts loaded with fruits and vegetables to their self-designated spot on the main road.

Many are still sleeping. In India, homelessness is not a problem, it is a way of life. To many who live in the cities, the cost of a house or apartment is far beyond their means. In Delhi, thousands sleep on the grass and benches of the city parks. Sadhus sleep at the banks of the Ganges on the steps of the ghats. They have a bamboo mat and a blanket, which they roll up and sling over their backs with a piece of string during the day. That and a pot for water and a cup for money are all they own. Beggars will often sleep in the alleys and side streets. Many people sleep where they work. Most shops that you visit have cots set up in back where the owner's family sleeps. At each hotel that I have stayed at, if you come downstairs early, you have to step over the sleeping bodies of the hotel staff on the floor, tables or cots. In the morning everyone ignores you, and you can walk unhindered, just observing.

Day Hike:
I met up with Jim from England who is 45 and will be joining his 21 year old son next week to travel together. We hit it off right away and decided to hike into the hills in the afternoon to get some exercise. We headed up a path to a forest road behind the hotel. It was a beautiful hike with the Ganges valley on our right and the tropical forests of the Himalayan foothills on our left (and all around us).

We met very few cars or trucks, but many locals who walk this road daily from their homes to town. Many ignore us, but some stop to chat. Mostly they want to know which country we are from, where we are going, and what do we think of India. It's still the monsoon season, and it had been raining all morning. A light rain was falling as we left. My boots were soaked from wading through temporary rivers that ran across the road. We even passed waterfalls that splash over the high banks of the road.

We turned around after two hours and headed back. The sun sets early here (6:00) and by 6:30 it was dark. We hiked another 1/2 hour in the dark by following a local man and his son into town. About 22 km total. Ate a huge dinner afterwards!

The streets of Rishikesh really come alive at night. It is like walking in a dream. It reminds me of a carnival midway, or a chaotic mid-east bazaar. The strangeness that you can handle during the day seems more fantastic by night. The people seem to leap out at you from the dark streets.

On the platforms at the top of each ghat, pilgrims and holy men gather to pray and sing and chant, sitting around huge bon-fires. The ashrams are brightly lit with streams of people coming and going in and out. Pilgrims bathe in the river by torchlight and others light glowing orbs that float and send them downstream. Families gather by the river and light incense and hold private ceremonies. The lights and fires from the opposite bank light up the river with red and orange streaks. Hanuman the monkey god is making his rounds, offering to paint an orange streak on your forehead and say prayers for you.

The image of Rishikesh as India's spiritual Disneyland is quite accurate. Imagine what the average Indian would think if a 7 ft mouse and dog approached them in the dark. Much of this is really gimmicks for the Hindu tourist, and is meant for fun and entertainment. For example: when I first got into town I saw, sitting on a chair on the top of a table at the front of a restaurant, two young men covered in purple paint with mystical symbols all over their bodies, wearing only a loin-cloth and ringing bells. I really couldn't handle it and had to move on to something more familiar. But they are only kids dressed up as a popular Hindu deities to try to lure people into the restaurant. No different than a guy in a mouse costume at Chucky Cheese pizza. The pilgrims love it and take family photographs with them. And after a while one gets used to it; it's all part of the adventure, no big deal.

Adventures in India: Whatever You Do, Don't Press the Red Button...

It is truly amazing how quickly our minds can assimilate to new surroundings. From a first impression of Rishikesh as a combination of the best (and worst) of reality, dreams and nightmares, in just a couple days this town has really grown on me. It now even seems relaxing, peaceful and hypnotic.

I've ended up spending a week, but many come here for a few days and stay for months. It really has a great mix of everything that I enjoy about independent travelling: Lots of friendly gringos to become temporary best friends with, exceptionally tasty food, great places to stay, friendly and open-minded locals, beautiful scenery for a backdrop, plenty of day hikes and trips, exciting street life, tourist oriented shops, sunny and warm weather, and opportunities to learn something new. It is ideal for long stays, and one can walk everywhere with no vehicles in the streets. All this for very little money. I've been averaging $50 a week for all expenses combined, but if you stay in one place, it is easy to live on $4 a day.

I took a bus to Haridwar today. I will try to get a train ticket tomorrow to Dharamsala up in the mountains. The ticket office closed just as I got there today.

Adventures in India: Indian Food

A real surprise has been the exceptional food. I really don't have a clue what I am ordering when I walk into a restaurant, but I'm learning. Usually I just try something and hope for the best - I just eat whatever arrives. I haven't had a meal yet that wasn't good. Some are outstanding.

Most travelers get something called a Thali, which is like an Indian smorgasbord. You get 6-8 dishes of lots of different foods, with chapati (a pita-like bread) that you dip into everything. Also a little dessert that is like a doughnut ball. Most people really like it, although I have met a few that hate the food.

I think you'd really enjoy it. I had expected that the majority of meals would be bland beans and rice with the occasional splurge for a good meal (kind of like in Mexico), but it has not been so. I can usually find a dinner partner and eating is definitely a highlight.

Adventures in India: Yogi, Swami and Gurus (oh my)

As I write this I am looking out over the holy river Ganges, in the city of Rishikesh. This cafe literally is right over the water. Rishikesh is one of the most important holy cities in India. To India's Hindus this is a sacred river that is always pure. To bathe in the Ganges is to purify your body and wash away all sin. In addition, a sure way of reaching heaven is to be cremated on the riverbank and have your ashes thrown into the river. They bathe here, but do the cremation in another holy city, Varanasi. Rishikesh marks the point where the Ganges changes from a mountain stream to a river of the plains. It is quite wide, and is crossed by two long footbridges.

I took another long and exhausting bus ride from Mussoorie to Rishikesh two days ago. Back to the heat and humidity. I had a nice break in the hills, but now it is back to the real India.

To say that this city is strange is like saying that Minnesota is cold. So far, the Indians that I have met have been regular folks - earning some money, raising a family, trying to have some fun. It's been easy to get to know and relate to the people. But I left Kansas somewhere on the way to Rishikesh. For the first time I have had a feeling of culture shock. I will try to explain some of the images and sensations that constantly assault one's senses. After a while, I need to retreat back to the hotel and get back on solid ground.

Rishikesh has been described by Rick Steves as a spiritual Disneyland for Hindus. It certainly is a mix of the gaudy and devout. Many pilgrims come for a week or weekend and receive the blessings from the wandering holy men (sadhus) or from people that dress up like deities from the Hindu religion. Perhaps the strangest of these is Hanuman, the monkey god. I was approached by a man with long white hair covered from head to toe in bright orange paint and wearing a loincloth. All over his body were beads and decorations. His face was brightly painted with many colors. He follows you and tries to get some money, dancing and making strange noises if you ignore him.

The usual holy man that approaches you is a sadhu. They have given up all worldly possessions, including family, and wander the lands living solely on donations. They have an organized system with a leader, and I assume yearly conventions (that would be a sight). They either approach you or sit by the side of the street and beg. I have seen them lined up at the river for free food supplied by the temples. I have not spoken to any yet, but they are supposed to be quite fascinating to get to know. I suspect many of the ones that hang out exclusively in front of tourist hotels are more like glorified beggars than holy men. I think that I have found a town here with more "characters" in it than Prescott, AZ.

Besides all that, it is a much more chaotic, dirty, and lively city than any I have been in so far. At first I didn't like it, but it has slowly grown on me, and I will probably be here for a week. I walked for a couple hours today on paths by the river and into the hills. I can't imagine a more bizarre or fascinating place. Every minute something totally new and amazing goes by. Like I said, one can only take so much and then you have to relax for a bit.

There are many strange travelers here as well. All ages and types. Predominately young Israelis, oddly enough. Hebrew is spoken more than English in my hotel. At first the gringos seemed a bit snobbish (this usually happens when there is a large number of us in a town; the fewer tourists, the easier it is to meet people). However I met a young Israeli man the first night and had dinner and talked until late (he hates it here). There are also many 18-year-old runaways having the time of their life. Complete freedom is mighty exciting at that age. I actually feel a bit like an old man here. Some old hippie types and dropouts also.

This is the place where everyone comes to study yoga and meditation. To not do so would be like taking the family to Niagara Falls, but not actually visiting the falls. There are hundreds of ashrams (yoga study centers) and teachers (yogi). Most are geared to Hindus, but some specialize in foreigners. Where do I start? What I really need is an American who has been here for a while and knows the word on the street and can give me some good advice on yoga classes and the rest of the craziness here. I believe that things come to you when you need them and this time was no exception.

I met a Hawaiian named Jack at an Internet cafe and he invited me to have some chai at a nearby restaurant. He has only been here for a week, but has traveled here for many years and has been studying yoga for 20 years. He is in his 40s. We talked for many hours about the town and the yoga philosophy and where I should start if interested. He took me to a small guesthouse, where a yogi who is good with westerners teaches each morning. He seemed to know everyone. It was exactly what I was looking for. A really nice person, a total extrovert, and an impressive talker (all Americans love to talk. You can pick the American out of a room every time. Not very many here though).

I try to greet other travelers when they first arrive because I hate when you get to a hotel and there are lots of other people, but no one will talk to you. I befriended an Israeli couple who were here on vacation for one month. We had dinner together and talked all night. They also works with computers in Tel Aviv.

This morning I headed out at 6:45 to go to class. I wandered for about 30 minutes because I couldn't find the place, but eventually got there. The class is held on the rooftop with the Himalayan foothills for a backdrop. It was foggy and misty. A great place to start.

For a couple hours we did stretches and exercises, called asanas; this is generally what most Americans think of as yoga. It is more exhausting than it looks and I am thankful that I am in pretty good shape or I would have been hurting. The Yogi Chandra looks about 70 and is stronger and in far better shape than anyone I have ever seen. He is an excellent teacher and a nice person. He is very patient with us. I am probably the oldest student here.

Asanas are only the first step. Then comes breathing exercises to calm you and purify your body and mind. Then meditation. I am willing to try anything, but I was skeptical. But after meditating it for a while, I found it to be very relaxing and calming. One certainly has time to think about things that you ordinarily would not have time for.

I found the whole experience very pleasurable. The yogi's key points were 1) Be happy 2) Be honest 3) Be true 4) Do not judge 5) Do not blame, etc. Pretty basic and sound ideas that are not expressed by our modern guru, the television.

I have time here for only a brief introduction, but it is quite fascinating. Some come here for a week and stay months. I don't expect to go nuts with anything like this, but I think a daily program of stretches and exercise followed by meditation would be a positive thing to take back. Who knows? It is easy to get back into old habits at home. It is definitely eye opening.

I apologize for being so long winded this time. The Internet here is quite slow and constantly loses the connection, so I haven't been able to write for a few days. Let me know what you think and send questions! If I ramble on too much, let me know that too.

I will head for the deep mountains in Tibetan India to a town called Dharamsala next. I'll try to write in a couple days.

Adventures in India: Gravestones in the Himalaya

Well I definitely have a cold now, but it isn't too bad. The sore throat is gone, and now I'm blowing my nose. I hope it won't turn into two weeks of coughing like it usually does. I figure that I would probably have a cold anyway if I was back home, and I seem to get one on every trip. I'm still suffering from jet lag even though I am sleeping better. I still want to go to bed in the afternoon and get up in the middle of the night. The cooler air has really helped, but unfortunately my immune system was probably down.

The train was a 2nd class reserved sleeping car. It first glance it looked pretty gross and decrepit, but it was actually quite clean and was just fine. It just doesn't look brand new like everything in the US. Three bunks on each side of a compartment with a 2" foam pad. Everything else is painted metal. The compartments are not enclosed, so theft is a problem. I locked my bags to the railing and slept with my head against them. I have heard stories of bag snatching on trains from people who have traveled here a long time. It was comfortable and quiet, but I still didn't sleep. The train ride took about 11 hours, plus a taxi ride before and a bus ride after for a total of about 17 hours of travel. It definitely takes a while to move around here - probably the biggest hassle. I am not going to be able to see as much as I would like.

Took it easy today and hung around Mussoorie. Had spicy curried stuffed potatoes for lunch. It cleared up yesterday afternoon and it is sunny and warm with blue skies today. The mountain backdrop is stunning. I've never seen anything like it. The town is at the top of a peak looking over two very steep lush green valleys. I just had to stare for a while when the clouds first parted. Outstanding!

Mussoorie is a very charming town. It really is about perfect. It has all the amenities, but little congestion or touts; beautiful, serene and peaceful. Maybe not as fun as a bigger tourist town, but well worth a relaxing stay.

The best part is a 2 1/2-mile walkway that leads around the town and overlooks the valley. It is gravel with a railing, and is well maintained. No vehicles! It's just for walking and they rent ponies. I couldn't imagine a better place for a walk. Who says India has to be intense and hectic? It passes an overgrown but beautiful cemetery from the English colonial days. The weathered Christian tombstones lie in a pine forest on the side of the mountain, overlooking the Dun valley - a somber reminder of India's tumultuous colonial era. I could only imagine the stories behind each grave. I handed out baseball cards to a group of boys playing cricket in front of the cemetery. They were very friendly and practiced their English by asking me lots of questions.

I will head to Rishikesh tomorrow by bus. Hopefully, I'll be able to go trekking soon. I should be able to write for the next few days.

Adventures in India: Thunder and Lightning

If you're wondering how I can send and receive e-mail in India, here's how it works: shady looking guys with turbans come up to you in the street and say "Sir, you need money, girls, booze, or... Internet?" Actually, very professional Internet cafes are everywhere. I didn't think that I would find one in this town (Mussoorie), as it's quite a ways up in the mountains, but they seem to be everywhere. There's no escaping it. It's very clean place that serves drinks and snacks with classic rock on the stereo; Hotel California is now playing - will this hell never end?

The taxi ride to the train station yesterday was completely out of control. Imagine two full lanes (each) of cars, trucks, bikes, push-carts, taxis, pedestrians, cycle rickshaws, auto-rickshaws, and animals - then cram them all into the same two lane road. Now imagine everyone trying to go as fast as possible, honking their horns, continuously changing lanes, and trying to squeeze ahead of everyone else. No one seems to obey the stoplights and it's every vehicle for themselves. I was more surreal than frightening. We even passed someone riding a huge elephant down this busy street (at least I think that is what I saw; I could have been hallucinating from the fumes). Travelling like this in the dark of night, it seems more like a waking dream than reality. I hopefully shouldn't have to do this sort of thing very often.

The train station was a bit scary at first (especially after that ride), but it was really very safe. Lots of regular Indians and families travelling. The electricity went out a couple times while I was waiting for the train. That was kind of eerie. But I caught the train without a problem. I shared a sleeping compartment with Simon and Peter from England, an Indian couple, and an older Indian man. Had a great time talking to everyone. At 10:00, we folded down the bunk beds and climbed in. I didn't sleep all night (I've still had no more than an hour of sleep so far). We drank hot chai in the morning. Chai is a thick tea made with lots of cream and sugar. It tastes more like hot-chocolate than tea. Very refreshing. The chai-wallahs walk up and down the platforms shouting "Chai, Chai," and hand small cups (made by mixing red sand with water and drying in the sun) of piping-hot chai through the train windows. Each cup is 2 rupees, or about 5 cents. The cups are thrown out the window when the chai is gone.

About 9:00 in the morning (two hours late), I got off in Dehra Dun and caught the next bus to Mussoorie. I met two Indian teenagers who were going to a soccer tournament in Mussoorie. They were very nice and happy to talk to me. I gave them some of my soccer cards that I brought from home. It took a while to get them to understand that I was just giving the cards to them. But man, were they happy. "You are a good man," they said. They wanted me to come and stay with the team at their hotel.

At noon (still no breakfast) I got in to town. I got lost, and it took a while to find the hotel, but it was worth it. Finally, a huge room with a king sized bed, my own bath, desk, mirror, chair, and shelves. All for about $2 per night. No shower, but they deliver buckets of steaming hot water upon request. It is chilly up here (2000m) and fog rolled through town as I arrived. Mussoorie clings to a steep mountain side, and you seem to look straight down into a lush green valley. This town is very popular with Indian tourists, especially newlyweds on their honeymoon. The fog soon became so thick that nothing could be seen. When it is clear, you can see a ring of snow capped mountains surrounding the valley.

I got some lunch (an excellent and tasty meal of dal and bread, with yogurt), and slept until 7:30 at night (finally). I had some dinner at the hotel (an omelet) and slept most of the night.

Today, I was planning to hike on paths in the valley near the town, but it is pouring rain. Unfortunately, the cool temps and the rain has given me a cold. I talked all morning with a guy from Holland who is also looking to go further up in the mountains, but must wait for the rain to end. If it clears up tomorrow and I'm feeling better, then we will go together. If not, I might go to another town for a few days before trying again. The monsoon was a month late this year, so it will still rain off and on for the next couple weeks (bad luck for us trekkers).

There may be Internet cafes further up in the mountains, but possibly not. If I head up for a trek tomorrow, it might be a few days before I can write.

You would really love the food. It is really good. I've had all vegetarian food so far. I think it is too chaotic for you though. I'm sure you could handle it, but you might not really enjoy it. Nepal sounds much better.

I miss you and kitty real much! Almost a week already! It will go fast. Love you and talk to you soon.

Adventures in India: Trekking to the Sky

I believe I was experiencing shock at the Amsterdam airport the more I think about it. That usually only happens after an accident or a near-accident. Who knows? I have been in very good health while in Delhi (keep my fingers crossed). The water purification system that I am using seems to be working well. I also drink a lot of Cokes each day.

Today was considerably hotter and muggier than yesterday. It is probably 110F with 100% humidity. The sun is even stronger than the Phoenix sun. I was going to go to Old Delhi today to look at a huge Moghul fort and the spice market, but as I started out at 7:30 in the morning the heat was already unbearable. So I headed back to the hotel and spent the rest of the day (until 2:00) talking to other travelers. Three other gringos and I shot the breeze for hours. It is really a highlight of these trips. An American from Georgia named Chris was a born storyteller; he could just talk and talk (as could all Americans that I met in India). He has been here a month and did more or less what I am planning to do. However, he has the worst luck (or is it karma?) while travelling. Everything imaginable happened to him on his trip. Disaster upon disaster befell this poor guy. He had the best (and most humorous) stories of anyone I have ever met. Just so you don't think that I am in for trouble, I have not met anyone else who is having any problems, and he has had bad things happen to him all over the world. The only good thing that happened to him was that he left his camera on a city bus, and an Indian gentleman returned it to him at his hotel (not everyone is out to get you).

This afternoon I helped three women from Spain buy train tickets to Jaipur. I had to take them to the train station and show them where to go and what to do. They were amazingly clueless. They are trying to get to Katmandu, but I am amazed that they even found a hotel. I'm not going to start a guide business, but I happened to do the same thing yesterday (buying a ticket), and Ben from England showed me where the train station was, and what to do. Just passing along the favor.

I went out to eat yesterday night with Ben and an older Italian named Fabian. He travels to India several times a year to buy books to resell in Venice. He always stays at the hotel that I am at. He says it is the best in Delhi. Sometimes you just get lucky. The food was very tasty. I had some lentils with curry and bread baked in a wood fired oven called a tandoor. Amazing! They also serve a 'tandoori' chicken that looked (and smelled) better than any barbecue I have ever seen back home. Fabian always gets it. I'll have to try it.

Instead of a pre-packaged mint after dinner they serve crushed rock sugar with anise seeds. I was hesitant, but tried it. It tastes like licorice candy, but with a much more powerful flavor. Very enjoyable. We stayed at the restaurant for 2+ hours talking. So far, talking to other travelers is pretty much all I've been doing. That and walking around the city. Delhi is not a good place for meeting ordinary working Indians, although I have met several people who came up to me on the streets that just wanted to talk and not to sell anything. Tonight I head for the Himalayas and some cool temps.

PS. It costs about 55 cents and hour for Internet use here. Pretty damned cheap!

Adventures in India: Land of the Bazaar

Everything has gone as well as can be expected so far. Actually it's been quite easy, and all my fears have been unfounded. Everyone has been very nice and the touts haven't bothered me too much. They are so polite when they try to scam you. You end up saying things like "No, thank you sir, I would not like to give you a large sum of money to guide my to the station, but thank you for your concern." I haven't slept since Monday, but that's nothing I didn't expect. It is VERY hot and humid here, probably 105F at least.

The most harrowing experience that I expect to have for the entire trip happened, of all places, in the Amsterdam airport. There was a long line waiting to get into the gate about an hour before the Delhi flight. They were interrogating everyone, looking for smugglers or troublemakers I suppose. When it was my turn, a skinhead looking Hollander asked me all kinds of questions about what I was doing. He was pretty rough. He wanted to know everything about what I did and why I am going to India and why I am travelling alone. I answered the best I could. He said "You look very nervous, why is that?" It was right out of a movie (we have ways of making you talk...) I told him that I am always nervous because I have so much stress on the job. He grilled me about that for a while. I started to feel dizzy and actually felt like I was going to faint. It was a very weird feeling that I have had only on very rare occasions when I feel completely freaked out. I actually started to black out. He said that he would have to see his boss about me. I was ready to sit down or I thought I would fall down. That probably wouldn't look too good right now, I was thinking. Then he came back and told me that I was OK to go. Then I just went into the gate and sat down until I felt better. Man, that was really a weird thing to happen.

Oddly enough, I feel completely at ease in India and am really enjoying it. It is very much like Guatemala, but more so. I've got to learn to look to the right instead of left when crossing a road (they drive on the other side), and to use my right hand for everything.

The flight to Delhi was fine (except for having to watch "The Mummy"). I called the Sunny Guesthouse, a hotel recommended in my guidebook, from the airport. "Do not believe what anyone tells you, we are open," the manager told me. I caught a taxi outside the airport, gave the driver the name of the hotel, and headed out at midnight. We drove for 45 minutes, then stopped in front of an "official" tourist information office. "Please come inside for free information and maps of Delhi," the driver says. I had read before leaving about the various scams that the taxi drivers use to get you into their "friend's" hotel, where they receive a commission (which is added to your bill by doubling the price). I told him that I would wait in the cab, and please take me to the Sunny Guesthouse. He went inside and two people came out who tried for 20 minutes to convince me to stay at a hotel just down the street. In the end, I told them that I was meeting someone at the Sunny Guesthouse. I actually expected them to say, "Yes sir, I spoke to your friend and he told me that he would meet you at my hotel," but instead, with a look of defeat, he told the driver to take me where I wanted to go. About a block away he dropped me off outside the hotel, and I went inside. I could have simply walked, but they have the advantage: you're in a strange city in the middle of the night, you don't know where you are, and you're very disorientated. This happens to everyone, and most people end up giving in. Some pay a hundred dollars for their first night in Delhi. Fortunately, this was to be the only time on my trip that I felt like I was being taken advantage of. Nearly all Indians deal honestly, although sometimes aggressively, with tourists.

It turned out to be a good backpacker's hotel. I got a cheap single room: 3 1/2 feet by 6 1/2 feet, with a naked bulb, a fan, a 1/2" thin mattress and a hard pillow. I, of course, wouldn't have it any other way. There is a rooftop area with tables and everybody hangs out up there. It is great to be travelling again. I had breakfast at the hotel with a group of Europeans that were going home today. One girl from London hitchhiked all over Tibet and said it was the highlight of her trip. Two other guys from Holland had brought their mountain bikes and biked from Leh in the north to Delhi. I hooked up today with Ben from England and we walked all over the town today. We got train tickets and cokes and ice cream. We'll hit the museum of modern art this afternoon.

I've got a train ticket for tomorrow night in a sleeper car. That will be a first. I'll be in Dehra Dun in the Himalayas by Saturday morning. It should be nice and cool up there. Hope to do some trekking, some mountain sightseeing, who knows, maybe go hang-gliding with the Dalai Lama. I have heard that he is on a world tour now. If not, then I'll head up to Dharamsala and try to see him. If he's out of town, I'll just check out the Tibetan community up there.

It is true -- The cows of India just wander around wherever they feel like, especially in the roads. They'd probably let them wander into the hotels and restaurants if they had a mind to do so. They're kind of like high-school kids after school is over who don't really have anywhere to go, so they just hang around. If I saw a cow with baggy pants and a Walkman, I wouldn't be surprised.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

India: Jaipur, Chittaurgarh

Our first stop after leaving Jaipur station was the Palace of the Winds. This is really just a wall - a facade (but some wall!!!). This is where the ladies of the Palace could look out on the doings of the town without being seen themselves. Build in 1799, the five-story building looks out over the main street of the old city. Its pink sandstone windows are sem-octagonal in shape and delicately honeycombed.

There were a couple of snake charmers sitting on the pavement. One of the snakes escaped and managed to get himself well woven into the wheels of several bicyles that were parked alongside. We went back to the bus at this point; escaping cobras are not my idea of fun!

Across from the City Palace is the observatory. Jai Singh built this observatory in 1728. His passion for astronomy was even more notable than his prowess as a warrior and before starting construction he sent scholars abroad to study foreign observatories. At first glance the observatory appears to be a curious collection of sculptures, but each construction has a specific purpose, such as measuring the positions of the stars, altitudes and azimuths, or to calculate eclipses. The most striking instrument is the sundial with its 30 metre high gnomon. This casts a shadow which moves up to four metres an hour. It is accurate within two seconds(!) - on Jaipur local time.

We then went to visit Jaipur City Palace. In the heart of the old city, the City Palace occupies a large area divided into a series of courtyards, gardens and buildings. The palace is a blend of Rajasthani and Moghul architecture, the former Maharaja still lives in part of the palace. Outside there are two very large silver vessels which a former Maharaja used to take drinking water with him to England. Being a devout Hindu he could not drink the English Water, because the water in England would be "unclean". These two huge pots are the biggest single pieces of silver in the world and much bigger than the man who was cleaning them. There is a magnificent Peacock doorway, highly colourful, and very beautiful, the door was faced with gold.

We had lunch at the Rambagh Palace Hotel. After lunch we felt pretty tired and went to sleep in the the sun on the lawn and felt more alive after that.

We took an elephant ride up to the fort. The elephant takes three or four people. It feels very high up on top of the elephant, and there is a bar across your middle to stop you falling off!! The mahout sits on the back of the elephant's neck and steers with his feet. Off we went, one plodding foot in front of another plodding foot. There is a steep hill up to the fort. The mahout produced - from goodness knows where - a mahout's stick, which after suitable haggling, I duly bought. We later found that most people came back to the coach clutching a mahout's stick. Some of them two, or more!

When we got to the fort, the mahout gave me a ride with me sitting in front of him on the elephant's head! It was very scary; there I was sitting on the crown of the elephant's head with nothing to hold on to in front, and it looked a long way down. I decided that I don't think I would like being a mahout. But I did enjoy being around the elephants and talking to them.

Tearing ourselves away from the elephants, we explored Amber Fort and the Palace. This Fortress/Palace was constructed in 1592 by Raja Man Singh, the Rajput commander of Akbar's army. The fort is a very good example of Rajput architecture, stunningly situated on a hillside overlooking a lake which reflects its terraces and ramparts. The place was huge. Some of it was quite interesting, but we were getting pretty tired by this time and the group were all starting to flag a bit.

We ended this long day at Tiger Fort which stands at the top of a high and precipitous bluff overlooking Jaipur city. To get up there the mountain road was very twisty. This road is described in the guide book as "jeepable". Seemingly, nobody told our driver that his luxury coach wasn't a jeep! Just about every hilltop in this part of India seems to have a fort on it. Obviously a nation with a pretty warlike past.

By this time the evening was getting distinctly chilly, but in the courtyard there was a big roaring fire which helped to keep us warm. We also managed to get hold of some blankets to wrap ourselves in to watch the show we had come to see. The culture show was very good. Lively dances and colourful costumes. Dinner was set out in the courtyard. After dinner we went down the twisty mountain road (in the dark) to Jaipur station to get back on the train.

It has been a very full day - we were up at 6.30am, and we are back on the train at 9.15pm. No wonder I feel tired.

After a very good night's sleep we are out before breakfast to visit the famous Rajput fort at Chittaurgarh. The fort was huge, the biggest in Rajastan, we would have liked longer here

This was the first example we met (there were others later) of the Rajput genius for totally ineffectual heroic gestures:

Padmini was evidently a most beautiful lady, married to an uncle of the Maharana of Chittaurgarh Palace. But Ala-ud-din, the then King of Delhi, caught sight of her reflection when she was in her Water Palace at Chittaurgarh. He promptly fancied her. So he laid siege to the fort, to get his evil way! But Chittaurgarh, although an enormous fort, had then about 60,000 people living there. It simply couldn't either produce or stock enough food for that sort of population. So - equally simply - it was vulnerable to siege. And doomed. The old Rajputs had a Code of Practice for when they were doomed. All the warriors rode out, weakened by siege and starvation, but resplendent in orange robes, to fight and meet certain death in battle with the superior enemy. All the women, meanwhile, remaining in the fort, "... built a huge funeral pyre and marched into the flames in the form of ritual suicide know as jauhar." Padmini amongst them!

But the lesson wasn't too well learned. Chittaurgarh was sacked on two more occasions after this, and the whole heroic procedure was gone through again each time - orange robes for the men, bonfires for the girls. On the last occasion, the fort fell to Akbar.

The Maharana (who seems to have survived the chivalrous carnage), decided he'd had enough of Chittaurgarh, and set up shop in Udaipur.

Back to the train for a hearty breakfast. We travelled across the countryside which is very flat and arid, with small square areas of about half an acre which were in cultivation. We passed the occasional village where dogs, sheep and goats were much in evidence. As well as hordes of people.

We arrived in Udaipur, a fairy-tale city of lakes, fountains and palaces, set in a landscape of hills. We went for lunch at the Lake Palace Hotel - a beautiful palace in the middle of the lake. We went in a boat which was dressed overall with garlands of flowers. As we landed we were greeted with more flower garlands. This is the first palace we have been to that looked as good on the inside as it did on the outside. We were shown a very clever and funny puppet show, I wish it could have gone on longer. We weren't allowed to video this, of course!)

After lunch we visited the City Palace. Each palace seems to be bigger and grander than the one before. This one was enormous, it towers over the lake, and is the largest palace complex in Rajasthan. The palace is surmounted by balconies, towers and cupolas, and there are fine views over the lake and the city from the upper terraces.

It was once a custom for Maharanas to be weighed under the gate and their weight in gold or silver to be distributed to the populace.

We then went to the Garden of Fountains. This is a quite beautiful garden, with five or six different areas with different kinds of small lakes and fountains. My favourite was where there were fountains shaped like elephants, with water coming out of their trunks. The flowers and shrubs were beautiful too.

There was a big cultural festival on the outskirts of Udaipur. This wasn't on our itinerary, but it was a special day in celebration of the first anniversary of a big local cultural park. We had about an hour and a half to wander around. It was great to drift along on our own for once and not have a guide spouting facts and figures and dates at us.

The festival was great fun and highly colourful. There were lots of dancers and mummers from different parts of India, showing how the different regions and cultures vary in their styles of dress and dance. We watched craftsmen making and painting all sorts of things, spinning, weaving, and carving. We watched a young man painting a picture of Ganesh on silk with a brush of just one hair. What patience!

Back to the train and a chance to ride up in the cab. The driver and his mate were nice and welcoming. Their English was not too good, but they managed to get their meanings across with a little English and a lot of hand signals. I drove the train and blew the whistle. You have to blow the whistle every time there is a bend in the track , or if you see people or animals on or near the track ahead.

We went across a big bridge spanning a river, and at the other side was a large sign saying "PHOTOGRAPHY TOTALLY PROHIBITED." So, leaning out of the cab I took a shot of it. Ralph says that one of these days I will surely get arrested!

We travelled through mountains, the track twisting and turning, the train diving in and out of the tunnels. At times you could see both the front end of the train, and the back, turning in a great wide arc. It was great fun and quite the most interesting countryside we have seen so far.

There are lots of bushes by the side of the tracks of bright yellow gorse. I opened the door at one point, when we had stopped, to photograph them. Umish got very worried in case I fell out. I guess it would be a bit difficult to explain how he had managed to lose me.

Little children run to the side of the track, waving. If we stop, they ask our names. I think they must be taught the phrase, "What is your name?" When I say "Julia" they repeat it. Then, when you ask their names, they give you something quite unpronounceable!! and giggle.

The train is travelling across the desert tonight, a goods train is sent ahead, about 20 minutes ahead of us, in case there is sand or camels blocking the line. There is a full moon over the desert. Last night there was a total eclipse of the moon. Sadly it was too cloudy to see it.

During the night I was quite sick. I know what caused it. At dinner last night I had some fish coated in batter. It looked nice, but with one bite, I realised it was raw inside. I didn't eat any more, but obviously one bite was enough. I was sick several times in the night. In the morning I felt pretty rough.

Everybody was going off to Jaisalmer this morning. This medieval city sits remotely out in the desert, and used to be an important staging post on the old camel caravan routes between India and Asia Minor. Consequently a place - then - of rich merchants, and houses to match.

The houses, rich and beautifully carved "havelis" are still there, but the rich merchants have gone, along with the caravan route. What now keeps the city alive is what should have killed it - the closure of the rather hostile border with Pakistan. So the main local activity is now military.

Jaisalmer is the only one of the old Rajput forts which is still a living city, with quite a large population still living and going about their business in the narrow streets, all inside the city walls.

After a day taking things easy we went into Jaisalmer for dinner. Before dinner there was a colourful firework display and a cultural show. When we got back to the train Umish told us about his married life. When he got married he rode a white horse, and his bride was picked for him. She then came to his home, and is now living with his family. She is not allowed to take meals or to sit with the family, and the only time when they are together and can talk is at night. Umish is on the train for six months of the year, and during that time he only gets to see her for four hours a week when the train stops at Jaipur. In the household, Grandmother's word is absolute law. The women in the family are not allowed to work. A very different culture from ours.

The next day we arrived at Jodhpur. This Rajput city was founded in 1459. Built around and totally dominated by the Mehrangarh Fort, which stands high up on an isolated rock, 400 feet above the surrounding plain. This is probably the most massive of all the old Rajput forts, and very impressive. There was so much to see here, we would have liked more time.

This fort was a very formidable fortress, especially against elephant attack. Apparently, one of the techniques for forcing entry was to breach the gates by driving elephants at them.

First they used to ply them with booze until they were "crazy with drink" and then drive them at the gates. But at Jodhpur, each of the seven gates is at the top of a steeply sloping approach, which gets steadily narrower as it goes up. Then, at the the top of the slope, the gates are placed at right angles to the line of approach. This makes it impossible for drunken elephants to get a good run at the gates, and by the time they had turned towards the gates, they would have lost whatever momentum they had. Then, to discourage the poor elephants still further, several of the gates were fitted with outward-facing rows of iron spikes, just at elephant head level. These spikes we had seen at several other forts.

To discourage human breach of the gates, each major gate had a small gate built into it, with the top rather lower than human head height. When the main gate came under pressure, they would open this small gate - an invitation to the invaders to come through. But, in coming through, they would have to duck. Just inside the gate - concealed - was a mighty man with a mighty sword. The first one to duck through the gate would be guaranteed to have his head cut off!!!

One of the gates still has the marks of cannon balls on the wood and surrounding stonework. This, we were told, dates from yet another example of Rajput military futility! Apparently the Maharajas of Jodhpur and Jaipur went to war over a woman that both of them fancied. Jodhpur, our guide said decisively, was the winner! So, did he get the girl? No. She poisoned herself. Neither of them got the girl!

We also saw the imprints of a group of female hands. These were the wives of one of the old maharajas. After he died, they imprinted their hands into the wall. Whereupon they all committed "suttee" - all throwing themselves onto a bonfire. The palace itself was magnificent - beautiful walls and ceilings in super colours. And splendid artifacts, silver-plated houdas, and so forth.

India: Delhi Triangle, Jaipur

After a long flight we land at Delhi Airport. Ralph then has to go through the rigmarole of getting a customs note for his video camera - and we get our first taste of the Indian paranoia about video cameras. They don't ask if you are carrying a gun, drugs or a bomb. Oh no. But "Have you got a video camera?" If the answer is yes, they want to see it, check its number, then write all the details down in the back of your passport. Then write it all down again on a form in duplicate.

Getting through passport control and customs was quite something! Having already filled in a form on the plane with passport details, reason for visit, where from, by what flight, how long you intend to stay, and where, and so on and on... well, all those details are checked against your passport, written down, and studiously pondered upon. By the time they had checked the whole plane, it seemed to have taken hours. (worse then getting into China or Israel).

We reckon it was all planned; to delay you with bureaucracy, so that when you go to retrieve your luggage - which isn't there, you won't realize how long it has taken to arrive. We think they are unloading the cases two at a time, on a sack barrow!

We were welcomed by the rep from Pettitt's, the company we had booked with. "Welcome to India", he said and put garlands of flowers round our necks.

The drive to the hotel was 'interesting'. The driver went through every red light we came to. Some were flashing, some weren't, but it didn't seem to make any difference.

We cashed some money. The exchange rate in April 2003 was 69.25 rupees to the pound.

We went on a shopping trip into New Delhi. What a hairy trip that was!! It makes driving in Nairobi look like a model of disciplined restraint!! But it was fun, and we certainly got the flavour and feel of India.

We bought a couple of books by Jim Corbett - "My India" and "The Man-eating Leopard." Anyone interested in Indian or African hunters, particulaly hunters after man-eating big cats, will find Jim Corbett very readable and exciting.

The next morning we went to explore Delhi. Our first stop was to Gandhi's memorial. We walked all around the outside then we took off our shoes and walked down to the cenotaph. There is a continuous procession of people coming and going. A lot of them were throwing rose petals on the memorial.

We then went on to the Red Fort. This was not a building at all, but a whole walled city. Entering the Red Fort, Ralph was told he couldn't use his video camera. This was the first time - but it certainly wasn't the last! - that he would be told this during the three weeks we were in India.

We entered through the Lahore Gate which is the main gate to the fort. It takes its name from the fact that it faces towards Lahore, now in Pakistan. You find yourself in a vaulted arcade, now given over to small shops. This was once the Meena Bazaar, the shopping centre for ladies of the court.

The Red Fort was built by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan (A.D. 1628-58) as a Royal residence. The Red Fort has a perimeter of 2.41 km. An oblong octagon on plan, the Fort has two principal gates along its western and southern sides respectively. Outside the ramparts runs a moat, originally connected with the River Yamuna. The palaces lie along the eastern (river) side of the fort.

The Red Fort dates from the very peak of Moghul power. When the emperor rode out on elephant back into the streets of old Delhi it was a display of pomp and power at its most magnificent.

The 'Hall of Public Audiences' was where the emperor would sit to hear disputes from his subjects. 'The Hall of Private Audiences' was the luxurious chamber where the emperor would hold private meetings.

The Hall of Private Audience is where the original Peacock Throne used to be until it was stolen by the Persians. Running right through this area was a system of shallow artificial waterways - something, apparently, that the old Moghuls were very partial to. There is no water in them now, but the bottoms of the channels were cleverly tiled in such a way as to give the impression of running water. You could imagine how effective this must have been when there actually was water running there.

We then drove through Old Delhi. The roads were very congested, so many people, narrow streets and markets. We went to the Jami Masjid Mosque. The great mosque of old Delhi is both the largest mosque in India and the final architectural extravagance of Shah Jahan. Started in 1644 it was not completed until 1658. The Mosque has a capacity of 25,000 people.

We went on to visit a big Hindu temple, all built of marble. There was a young couple sitting in a corner, obviously arguing. Our guide told us the girl was saying she was unhappy living with her mother-in-law - she wanted a place of her own. Apparently it is the custom for a young wife to go and live in the house of her husband's parents, and to obey her mother-in-law in all things. I don't think I would have made a good Indian wife!

After lunch we visited Hyumayun's tomb. Apparently the Taj Mahal was modelled on this building. We watched a snake charmer here who had three small cobras dancing. They seemed to strike at him without causing any discomfort. I kept my distance. One of the snakes escaped but was soon hauled back. I was asked if I would like to touch the snake. I politely declined. Any time they looked like they might be heading in my direction I backed off. Snakes are the one creature I am really scared of.

We were told that for driving in Delhi, you need four good things- good horn, good vision, good brakes, and good luck!

We then went to see the Qutab Minar. The Qutab Minar itself is a soaring tower of victory which was built in 1193, immediately after the defeat of the last Hindu kingdom in Delhi. It reaches 73 metres high and tapers from a 15-metre diameter base to just 2.5 metres at the top. There is an iron pillar here, 1500 years old, which doesn't rust, and nobody quite knows why. If you clasp it with your hands behind your back, you can make a wish. Ralph said he already has everything he could wish for, so I had a wish for both of us.

We ended the day at a high class handicraft emporium. There was beautiful carved work in sandalwood here. We bought a little elephant god - Ganesh - carved in sandalwood. Ganesh is a kind god, and brings good fortune and prosperity. It was a cheeky little elephant. Ganesh has to have a big tummy, the bigger the better.

We saw a lot of markets in old Delhi. There is a fish market, meat market, fruit market, vegetable market, clothes market, chicken market, goat market, spare car parts market, tyre market. All the markets are separate, unlike the markets we are used to at home. We wondered if this was how Smithfield, Covent Garden, Billingsgate and so on, originally started out? Our guide told us that "If you have anything stolen in New Delhi in the morning, you will be able to buy it back in Old Delhi in the afternoon."

As we drove back to our hotel, it was rush hour. There were hundreds of scooters, ox carts, horse-drawn carts, cows, cars and bicycles. And so many people.

We wondered what it would be like to learn to drive in Delhi. We wouldn't last five minutes, we would be far too polite. Entering a roundabout, there is no question of giving way to the right. It's just a case of keeping going and hoping someone gives way. Overtaking is done either on the right or the left. Continuous high speed filtering - if there's a gap ahead, and your vehicle is narrow enough to go into it, into it you go. And, of course, as you go up alongside another vehicle, you sound your horn! Somehow it works, and the traffic certainly keeps moving. No heavy lorries are allowed into Delhi during the hours of daylight. London could do with that one. I still can't work out the traffic lights. Sometimes you stopped at a red light; sometimes you didn't. Anyway, to drive in Delhi would take more courage than I have.

The following morning we visited the Railway Museum. The car that took us to the museum was a rather old-fashioned Morris Oxford. All the taxis and staff cars, and quite a lot of private cars, seem to be mid-1950's Morris Oxfords. We recalled that a good few years ago India had bought up one of the Austin/Morris production lines, second-hand, lock, stock and barrel. And here it is, still going strong and obviously doing a bomb, turning out brand new "thirty-five year old" Morris Oxfords. Here they are called Hindustan Ambassadors.

We wandered around, looking at old engines, and in one corner found an old friend. A Garratt. Just as we were leaving the museum, a whole gang of locals arrived, pushing a real vintage fire engine - trying to bump start it. After a few coughs and splutters and a couple of bangs, the engine actually started to chug. We all cheered. After a minute or so, with a final mighty bang!! the engine died. We reckoned "died" might be the operative word; that last explosion sounded pretty well terminal.

This afternoon we are joining the 'Palace on Wheels' which will be our home for the next week.

We arrived at Delhi Cantt Station and were shown to a special entrance, where the red carpet was out. Literally. All the staff were very smartly dressed in uniform and we were given garlands, and packs of welcoming information. On the way to find our carriage we went past two great steam engines on the front of the train that were huffing and puffing out steam, they looked and sounded wonderful. The leading one was the "Desert Queen." Both of them were well decked out, with lions and peacocks painted on their sides.

Ours is the "Bikaner" saloon. It is the oldest on the train - built in 1897. Our cabin is great. There is a large lower bunk, almost a small double bed, and a rather narrow, small upper bunk. A wardrobe, and plenty of space below the lower bunk to slide the case and bags underneath. There are plenty of hooks to hang jackets and things on, we reckon we can manage OK with this, for a week. We are sharing a bathroom and loo with another English couple.

We puffed our way out of Delhi station and sat back to watch the passing scene. Umish escorted us to the restaurant car (needless to say we were stopped at a convenient station at the time - this not a corridor train!). After dinner the train stopped again and Umish was waiting for us to take us back to our saloon.

We waited at this station for about 15 minutes which gave us time to walk along the train and count the coaches. There are 21 coaches in all. The inside of the engine looked impressive, with all the shining brass dials and levers. Once the second sitting was seated the train started off again.

We had a rather unsettled night. The track was distinctly bumpy, and part of the character of these old coaches is that they are not as well sprung as modern rolling stock. Umish brought us coffee at 6.30am. Now, trying to drink coffee on the top bunk, while the train was gaily bouncing along was, I discovered, not difficult; it was impossible. I ended up managing to drink about a quarter of it, spilling the rest in the saucer.

We arrived at Jaipur at 8.15am. What a welcome we had to start our local tour. There was a huge banner saying "Jaipur Welcomes Palace on Wheels." We were given garlands of flowers. There were two elephants, one on each side of the station entrance, all dressed in silk finery, with their liveried mahouts looking very smart. As we passed between them they raised their trunks in greeting. I loved it. There was also a three-man band, playing their hearts out. Our transport for the day was a comfortable coach

Jaipur is the capital city of the state of Rajasthan and is popularly known as the 'pink city' from the pink-coloured sandstone with which the buildings in its old, walled city are constructed.