To the Taj Mahal

tajlong.jpgMy trip report to Agra:
This time I splurged, rather than taking the train and all that, I chose to rent a car and driver for the 400km round trip. While Agra has the Taj and some other interesting places, the guides are a massive pain in the ass. But more on that later. Yesterday’s trip started with the usual three question formalities, but this time there was a bonus round! If you missed an earlier e-mail the three questions are always asked in this exact order by everyone I meet:
Driver: “Are you traveling alone?”
Me: Yes
Driver: “Are you married?”
Me: No (Note: The fact I am not is a concept that is pretty hard to grasp in India)
Driver: (After a long pause) “How old are you?”
Me: 43
Now this had pretty well exhausted my driver’s English skills, and that was fine. I was just enjoying the scenery going by, one of the reasons I chose to rent a car to start with. But you could tell this was a puzzle and the pieces did not quite fit for him.
Driver: “Never married?”
Me: No
More thought, and then we get to the bonus round question:
Driver: “In California, aren’t there many gay peoples? Where boys sleep with boys and girls sleep with girls. I understand now.”
monkey.jpgWe had only gone 12 km from my hotel, and I silently started calculating the time/distance to Agra. As long trips go, this was shaping up to be memorable. However I was saved that fate because he really did not want to talk about it anymore. He had a puzzle, he hypothesized the missing piece and for him the world was back in some kind of balance. Now that his world was back in balance, we proceeded to the Taj Mahal. There really is not much else to speak of in Agra. A couple of amazing tombs, and the fort. Other than that, it is a pollution choked industrial area, but it is the touts, rickshaw drivers and “guides” that will send you fleeing from Agra as quickly as possible. This is a herd that the eco-system cannot handle and desperately needs thinning. You just cannot grasp the level of harassment without being there; it is quite similar to Varanasi.
tajclose.jpgTo this end, I have developed a proposal that I am going to submit to the India Ministry or Tourism. I propose that all visitors to Agra be given big sticks, preferably something heavy and indigenous to help the local economy. The benefits of my proposal are so many, it is difficult for me to imagine a sufficient accounting of them. To start with, India alone has over 3 dozen languages. Add in the tourists from over 150 other countries, and you can understand why many people wanting to help you at the Taj Mahal may not understand the word “No”. Many seem to misinterpret it as “Please, follow me farther” or “Your services interest me, please tell me more.” None of these people seem to be aware that the word “NO” really means: “If you keep following me and talking to me, my head is going to explode and then I am going to do something preemptive and American to you.”

In my vision of the future, tourists to the Taj will be able to evaluate the offers presented to them and if they decline, they can communicate this by hitting the erstwhile guide across the back of the head with the afore mentioned stick. I am suggested a particularly hard whack just in case the tourist in question has a hard to understand accent. This would break down all language barriers, and any guide could gauge a potential customer’s interest by the number of dents in the stick. A typical conversation might go like this:
Guide: excuse me sir, I am a guide..
Tourist: GAAAAAHH! *WHACK* *WHACK* *WHACK* *THUMP*
Guide: …..
Tourist: ……
Guide: cough
Tourist: AIIEEEEE! *WHACK* *WHACK* *WHACK* *WHACK* *WHACK*
Tourist: Whack
Guide: …..
Tourist: Where did that fellow with the chai go?
I realize that the “carry a big stick” theme is very overtly U.S. slanted. I will have to ask for a bit of leeway here, as running after people with big sticks is so common in the US it borders on a folk dance.


Mark hones his negotiation skills!

In the next entry, I will tell you of my visit to Agra, and the Taj Mahal (The building, not the famous Blues musician). That entry also includes my proposal for thinning out the population very aggressive self appointed “tourist guides”
toottoot.jpgBut first: Mark hones his negotiation skills!
Ah, the auto-rickshaw. I love them and hate them. In heavy traffic, they are a cheap three-wheeled, two-stroke green and yellow carnival ride. It is sort of like bumper cars at the fair, but the other cars are city buses and you are going 70kph. As with taxi drivers the world over, they are interested in taking advantage of the unwary tourist in any way possible. Over the weeks, I have gotten much better at setting a price before I get in, this time I chose to let the meter run (never a sure solution either). At the end of the trip, the meter said 20 rupees. Fair enough, I give him a 50 rupee note and he gives me 20r back telling me the fare is 30r. Grump. I point out the fare on the meter is 20r and he informs me the meter must be broken.
Yes, of course, I should have realized.

Be aware, at this point I am arguing over 15cents US. On the other hand, you don’t think in dollars and cents, you think in rupees. 10r is another taxi ride, 10r is almost a bottle of coke, 10r is a phone call. In short, that 10r is bloody well MINE. So there I held the 20r note he gave me and I was not sure what to do next, so I took the only reasonable course of action: I reached over and snatched my original 50r note out of his hands.
I have to say this was a new position for both of us. I had never made a 20r profit on a taxi ride in India, and he had never seen a passenger on the profit side of the equation. It was a negotiation scenario that he had never quite encountered. I told him to dish out 10r more, and he searched the inner parts of his soul and decided his code of professional ethics required him to respect the findings of the meter.

elephantone.jpgI WON! Well, for a little while
As I am coming back to my hotel in the main bazaar, I see something I have not seen yet. A huge bull elephant lumbering its way down the narrow road separating the shops. I took a picture, and the trainer sets the elephant down and pulls me aboard. Of course there is no mention of money: if you come to India, this is the first clue that what you are about to do is gonna cost you. I knew that, and I really didn’t care. I am sitting behind the trainer, on an elephant, in India, as it lumbers down the highly crowded main bazaar. It was hard to think of a price too high. Oh, didn’t I mention the trainer did not seem very concerned with non-paying people, i.e. pedestrians? We go a little ways and he turns to me and says “500 (about $12) for elephant, you pay now..” You kidding? HERE! So off we went, and then I realized that..well, he seemed to really like scaring the living daylights out of everyone not on the back of the elephant. He urged the elephant to go faster, and a few people yeped and got out of the way and then it happened. I tried not to, mostly, but I could not help it: I chuckled. As soon as he heard that he turned around, grinned at me and says “Ah, Good American: HUT HUT HUT HUT”. This was apparently the signal to kick the beast into 3rd gear and away we went. With every terrified shout from a pedestrian below, he just laughed and yelled “HUT HUT HUT” until the elephant, and frankly everyone in that part of the bazaar, were moving at a clip the far side of nimble. You have to love a country with lax liability laws.

All too soon we emerged from the bazaar and there was a major road leading from the train station to a major auto rotary. Think a major roadway of 3 or 4 lanes each side: its 5pm rush hour. He does not stop, he heads the elephant down the middle of the road INTO oncoming traffic. There we are: surrounded by dozens of little green and yellow auto-rickshaws, my personal nemesis. Then of course (as this is part of the extortion scheme), he turns and says “You want more, 200 rupees for elephant, you pay now”. Please understand my frame of mind: I had visions of this massive creature wading into the traffic, leaving twisted wreckage that looked like crumpled green and yellow beer cans in its wake along with a mob of screaming taxi drivers. I nearly ripped my pocket out getting the money into his hand.

elephant2.jpg“HUT HUT HUT” and more of that insane grin. The elephant plunges in and all hell breaks loose. I felt a little like a Moses stand-in as the sea of taxis parted before us, and the drivers were not looking very confident. This was not the happy, dancing Ganesh they have always read about. This was just a big gray beast with bloodshot eyes and a pair of laughing lunatics on top that appeared thoroughly uninterested in taking control of the situation. After terrorizing the population, we rode back to my hotel, and I got my next lesson in negotiation:
“You want off elephant? 100 rupees, you pay now” Mind you, after my win over the taxi driver earlier, I was full of confidence I could negotiate with the driver. The driver on the other hand had very high confidence that I could not negotiate with the elephant. I thought for a moment of the elephant simply grabbing me by the ankles and shaking me until anything he was interested in fell on the ground, including my teeth. So, 100r: done deal.

But I have to tell you: US$ 18.24 to spend 20 minutes terrorizing a city on the back of an elephant? That’s a bargain by anyone’s standards.


Thoughts on Varanassi

chat.jpgVaranasi: most holy city in India, seat of learning, and also where people prey the most on the average traveler. It is amazing how many travelers have stories about this, it is almost a rite of passage. It sort of tells everyone: “Ah, he has been bloodied in battle, now you are really ready for the rest of your trip.”

Varanasi is an amazing city, no doubt. If you don’t know which city this is, it is the one were everyone hopes to go to bathe in the Ganges River and there are several ghats (Riverside Temples for lack of better words) two of which are were bodies are burned before the ashes are sent to the river. It is a hard city for travelers because you can’t actually just wander and explore the ghats due to the very aggressive beggers, guides, and “people that just want to be friends” and are in fact guides.

onganges.jpgIt is very easy to leave feeling like everyone is trying to extract as much cash as possible from you, no matter what. My getting cheated was due to a very poor recommendation on the part of my travel agency, but a small bump. I am most fond of being in India when I am alone just wandering in the bazars. Not even the buying, I have no skill at negotiation in the shops and if someone drops a price from 540r to 500r, I am doing well (please note, that means $1). But tiny cheats don’t bother me. I just love the feel and the smells and even just riding about in the rickshaws. One day in Varanassi I spent just buying small things and posting some pictures that I promised people I took pictures of back to Maneybhjang. As I was getting my things posted, I was invited to sit and have some chai with the postmaster and I have no idea why. I had not packaged my things properly, and they asked me to come sit behind the counter, got someone to package my things, ordered chai from the stall across the street while a line grew of angry tourists from other countries.So, we had tea, paid for my packages and left with smiles all around… well, not from the other tourists.

vboat.jpgI have no idea why this happened, but it was a nice way to start the day. Later that night, I scheduled to head back to Delhi (depending on the whims of the train god), and my seedy little “Hotel Relax”. I still had to go to Agra to see the Taj Mahal, as they note it in your passport and you are not allowed to leave India without seeing it.

I spent much of my time on the train reading “India Unbound” by Gurcharan Das, an excellent book on the history of the Indian economy to the present from the perspective of someone that has lived it his entire life. It is interesting to overlay the book with my experiences on the street level here. It is hard to imagine how the great growth India is seeing in major cities will extend both downward on the economic ladder and across. On the one hand this is the time of the great Indian Start Up Company. On the other, you cannot help but see the day to day attitude of “the only way to get ahead is to take advantage of others”. By others I don’t mean tourists, I mean “everyone but the people living in my own home”. If local inter-cities economies cannot be created in such a way that pricing is transparent to consumers, which leads to open and healthy competition based on a number of factors and not just price, then I fear that the motivated commercial cities of India will be the only ones to join and reap the benefits of being on a larger economic stage.

For your amusement, here is a picture of a water buffalo:
cow.jpg


Train to Varanassi

longtrain.jpgTrain travel in India is without exception the best way to see India. From the trains of India you can touch almost every aspect of Indian culture. The food, wonderful conversations with your seat mates, ample opportunity to see different landscapes and the chance to experience a bureaucracy that would chill the blood of an IRS auditor. Case in point: My ticket was for the 8th, and I arrived at the appointed hour on the 8th. The reservation listing only showed passengers for the 7th. This being my 3rd trip on India Rail, I see a bad omen. Sure enough, a few inquires informs me that indeed it is the 8th, but as the train is a total of 24 hours late, and is only taking passengers from the 7th. I really needed to get on that train.

tickets.jpgWhen the going gets tough, the tough get stupid
I remembered some advice an Indian traveler gave me: “It does no good to argue, and yelling just makes people pretend you aren’t there. You have to become a tiny pebble in enough shoes that they have to get rid of you.” So I chose the smiling, dopey, persistent American route. I first approached the head ticket clerk, who sends me to the ticket counter who in turn sends me back to the head clerk who, for unknown reasons, then sends me to the Tourist Information counter for the state of Sikkim. I think the ticket clerk just wanted his lunch in peace. At least he and I had the same goals, only I planned to have my lunch on the train in just under an hour. So I just kept going back to each person and sitting in their office with that dopey smile that I hoped conveyed the following theme: “Hello, you seem to desire my company in your office until hell freezes over and your grandchildren are old and grey, yes, I can do that.”

“THE TRAIN IS FULL”

This was the primary point everyone one tried to get across to me: “No, the train is full!” Try to put yourself in the place of the ticket staff with very little English, and of course, I don’t speak Hindi or Bengali. My exchanges with everyone went in this general direction:
Staff: “No, no, the train is full!”
Me, the Dopy American: “Yes, I am full, I just ate. But thank you for asking. The man at the ticket counter said you would give me tea… may I have some chai?”
Various Staff: “What? No, no… not food, the train is full, not food!”
Dopy Me: “Oh, no… I will not need food on the train, I am full, I just ate. Will there be chai on the train? I like chai, do you have any?”
Frantic Staff: NO! Not Chai… the train, no train now… later!
Dopy me: “What, my train will not have any chai? That is very disappointing, do you have any I can take with me? My train leaves in an hour…”
rescue.jpgEach person from the head station manager to the ticket clerk had this same intercultural communication experience with the dumbest American on planet earth several times. At this point even I was tired of chai. After I wandered into station manager’s office for the third time seeking tickets, long conversation and a bottomless cup of chai, he marched me out of his office, and took my now very dog-eared ticket to the head clerk.Loud words were exchanged, many things were written on my ticket and I was eagerly escorted onto the AC3 section of the train. I don’t speak any Hindi but I think spirit of the conversation was something like this: “I do not care where in India you send this fool, strap him to a luggage rack if you have to, but either he leaves on the next train or you will be on the seat next to him.” and then lots of stuff got written on my ticket. So there I am on my bunk, when the Ticket Examiner decides I need to get off. Arrghhh. That is when an Indian family came to my rescue and I heard a “Stay there”, and more words were spoken and everything was fine. We all had a good time on the way to Varanassi, and they even got me a car to make sure I got to my hotel.


Trekking in Nepal, Adventures in Altitude Sickness!

mjtown.jpgI left Delhi and headed East to Maneybhanjang, a smallish village near the Nepal-India border of West Bengal. I spent two nights on the train from Delhi to NJP station (Siliguri for all intents and purposes), and then a taxi another 80km or so. That drive in itself was interesting, stopping for lunch, avoiding monkeys and watching the tea farms go by. My original plan was to hike the 5 hours into Nepal stay for a few days and come back. It turns out that Maneybhanjang is the jumping off point for 3, 5 and 7 day trekking holidays popular with travels from Kolkutta. Based on the few people I met on the trek, it is the Indian equivalent of the guys-only fishing trip, without the booze. As I hung about in ManeyBhjang, the more interesting a 4 day trek sounded, so I hired a guide by the name of Sukman for 250r a day (about US$5). If you have the physical ability, I cannot recommend this too highly. It was beautiful, relaxing, and breathtaking. Choose your adjective.

On the morning of the first day I met Sukman outside my hotel with my backpack over my shoulder and my spine slowly compressing. Sukman had a small sack over his shoulder that looked like it could barely hold his lunch. Given that, I went back up into the room and zipped the small daypack off, and put the minimum inside it: extra thermals, socks, one pair pants, shirt and medications. I went from a 60 pound pack to about 4 pounds. Best idea I had on the trip.

monkboy.jpgFor most of the time, Sukman and I were hiking alone stopping at monasteries and tea stalls on the trail. In one case, since it was just us, he asked if I would mind taking a wider route so he could visit a relative. He took me to a small farm that also took in guests from time to time, as do most of the homes on the trekking route. Sukman had almost no English, but his cousin’s English was pretty good. I was sitting outside the house enjoying the scenery while Sukman was catching up with friends. After some time taking pictures of the kids and chickens, someone asked if I was thirsty and would I like some water. I explained as politely as I could that I had just come from Delhi, where Americans tended to get sick unless we stuck with bottled water. His cousin’s reaction? “Really, that happens to Americans too!? I thought it only happened to Napeli that go to KolKutta, the water there is filthy. My family gets sick every time we have to go.” Thus we bonded over the filthy water of people that live in the flat lands. Once you have been drinking strong, milky, sweet black tea while hanging out with a Sherpa family overlooking the mountains called “The Sleeping Buddha” , grabbing a cup of Joe at the local Denny’s seems to lack something.

Your first lesson in cultural understanding
“Are you alone?” “Are you married” “How old are you” I was asked these three questions in this exact order at every stop, and I believe I can provide a cultural interpretation without understanding a word of Nepali:
kids.jpg“Are you alone” – “Hey, I can understand anyone coming out here without his wife, I mean, we’re guys, right? But where are your buddies at? What do you mean you are alone, as in traveling by yourself!?”
“Are you married” – “Ok, you did not bring your buddies with you, hey that’s cool, but alone? So, where is your wife? What do you mean you are not married, I got married when I was 17, so please tell me then…”
“How OLD are you?” – “Not married, no kids. Forget we even started the conversation; I don’t what to know what kind of freaky concept is going to pop out of your freaky American mouth next.” In reality these conversations took about 6 seconds with the questions, my answers of “Yes”, “No”, and “43″, and each answer met with total disbelief.
carrywood.jpgThe basic trek was supposed to be about 50km, and I had to cut the last 20km and jeep it back. After the hustle and noise and fumes and touts of Delhi, this was past beautiful. We walked for several hours, mostly up hill, stopping to listen to animals, rest on a cliff and button up against the cold and just march along listening to some farm kids singing as they brought in wood. I took 2 or 3 hundred pictures, but when you are out there you really get a “what’s the point?” sort of feeling. Nothing can bring back how clear the air is, or that feeling that you are about as remote as you have ever been. But, the camera has been the best thing for making friends. At every village I stopped at, I took pictures of kids and families and goats and anything else. Everyone loved seeing the pictures on the back of the camera, and I promised everyone that I would make prints in Varanasi and send them back to Sukman’s brother who has a hotel in Manbahjang. Sukman will pass the prints along to everyone on his next trip up. I have been doing this since I arrived: People don’t mind letting you take pictures all you want if they can have a print, and you can do that in a town of any size here.
kitchen.jpgSince I was traveling on the trek alone, I was treated a bit differently than the other tourists. Usually in each little village, you might hike in to find 10 or so tourists from Kolkutta or even Westerners, and everyone sits in a dining room and chats about the trip as best they can. In my case, Sukman would take me in, push me past the other guests in the dining room and I would spend my evenings in the kitchen with the family and the other guides. It was wonderful, sitting by the big smoky hearth, watching the nan being cooked, smoke stinging everyone’s eyes, and trying (mostly without success) to communicate as little we could. So, each night rather than being served with the guests, I sat with the family by the big hearth, and as any anthropologist will tell you, it just doesn’t get any better than that.

Oh, I didn’t mention that altitude sickness?
jeeptrack.jpgBut the end of the 3 day, and early on the 4 day, I was pretty sure my head was going to explode. My vision was blurring, I could barely use a pen to write, and I was trying to tell myself it was the flu. By this point we were at a bit over 12,000 feet and I could see Everest out my window. It was in this tiny trekkers hut (no family grub here, just whatever the guides whip up) that I met this other traveler, a British Doctor. He poked and proded and informed me that while I most likely also had a cold, the effects were being magnified considerably by “High Altitude Sickness”. Not at lot of people get it badly at only 12,000 but some do. So after a night of wind howling (as in 60mph, screaming off the Himalayas, tearing at the tin roofing and a wind chill about 0 degrees f), it was decided I needed to be put on a jeep back to Maneybajang, and farther down that day if possible. The trekking was amazing, then again so was the pressure I felt in my brain.
Lingering Questions

Why can’t Sukman understand that great whallops to my forehead will NOT fix my headache. Plus: I learned that when taking a jeep down an incredibly steep mountain jeep track, it is best to not take pictures of the driver who will then want to look at the pictures. Not stop, pull over or slow down mind you, just look at something other than the road.