Wednesday, May 17, 2006

The Taj Mahal

I didn’t want to go to Agra. It was out of the way and expensive to get to. I only went because deep down I needed proof that romance could ruin empires. In the 16th century, Emperor Shah Jahan nearly bankrupted the Mughal kingdom by constructing the Taj Mahal in honor of his favorite dead wife. He became so obsessed with the construction his son overthrew him and locked him high in a tower with one window facing his beloved monument. I've done some pretty stupid things in the name of love and its cost me too. I guess I wanted to verify that some people in this world are even dumber than I am when it comes to love. So I went. I wore my favorite “A lot of art is boring” t-shirt, but I went nonetheless.

Agra was awful. It confirmed all of my worst suspicions. The touts were relentless, the city was filthy, lodging was expensive, the air was thick and hotter than exhaust… in fact, Agra is every one of India’s worst stereotypes come to life in one place. I was in a terrible mood when we finally reached the entrance gate, then I saw the price. 750 Rupees! On our budget that equalled two weeks travel in India. We had a serious decision to make: either see the Taj or spend another two weeks traveling. Looking around at the army of mopes trying to force Taj postcards up the ass of every tourist in sight, we decided the last thing we wanted to do was extend our stay. So we paid up, donned our requisite surgical scrub shoes and entered.

I was pretty bitter by the time we came through the last arch and into the gardens. I felt violated by the extravagant price tag, not to mention all the postcards aimed up my ass. I was in no mood to enjoy the Taj Mahal. I'd embraced my bitterness and I wanted to keep it. I wanted to say, “The Taj? Eh, it’s just like the postcards... sorry about the smell,” but even my Irish-bred stubbroness was no match for the beauty of the Taj Mahal. To walk through the gardens and gaze upon the angelic white monument is to walk through every one of Sheherazade's thousand tales. Nothing I've ever seen, from the pyramids at Giza to palace at Versailles, prepared me for its arresting magnificence. Anyone who writes this place off is an idiot. I came very close to being an idiot myself, but that’s nothing new. I guess the real arresting fact is that I didn’t pull it off.

Picture glowingly manicured lawns, laughing fountains, blue sky, and a massive white marble monument surrounded on three sides by an honor guard of thick red monuments whose proximity to the Taj will forever thwart any honest recognition of their own splendor. The only thing that detracted from my ethereal experience was, on the inside, the Taj Mahal smelled overpoweringly like feet; thousands of year old feet to be precise. So don’t spend too much time inside, unless of course you enjoy the smell of ancient feet, in which case linger by all means.

As the sun sets the Taj grows more beautiful by the minute until its magnificence strikes dumb all of the tourists yapping and snapping photos and only the muted drumbeat of hundreds of awed hearts echoes in the twilight. As the final rays light slip from its face, the monument fades into darkness like a dream upon waking, to be reborn in equal splendor in the coming dawn.

The Himalayas

Our trek through the Himalayan foothills was long and grueling. We spent three nights in Nepal at the height of the uprisings and five nights in India at the height of nothing in particular. We lived off rice and dhal and a sparse six cups of tea a day. We slept in brutally soft beds with relentlessly warm blankets, tucked deep within cloyingly considerate guest houses. Our back ached under the weight of all of the water we would need for the eight hours it took us to hike to between villages with harrowingly exotic names like Thonglu and Sandakphu.

Furthermore, we had little to no contact with any human life along the way; encountering only two groups of Indian soldiers, four Germans, two Kiwis, two Scots, four Americans, a British bloke, a Japanese guy with a rumbling deep voice and bad diarrhea, and 20 Nepali sherpas doing the trek barefoot. But we kept our heads throughout our veritable isolation.

We sought out the mighty Everest in the distance and spent three mercilessly clear days walking straight at Kanchenjunga- the third highest peak on the planet. We climbed to heights of 3600 meters. The views were transcendental. They affected us in deep, elemental ways.

We navigated the height of darkness for eight days, criss-crossing borders as easily as rivers, and returned on the ninth to find the world in much the same state as we left. The grass was still green, the sky was still blue, and President Bush was still an idiot. Nothing had changed. Nothing except for us. We couldn’t have been more different.

I wore a fierce mountain beard two weeks in the making. It was almost visible if my chin caught the light just right, but most of the time house mothers just tried to wipe it from my face like chocolate. Ben wore a bamboo bow staff across his back and a squint that made people think he knew how to use it. In reality, the squint was battle damage from trying to strap the bow staff into its harness, but it was mean and convincing nevertheless.

Both Ben and I had the cool hard expressions of men who had been deep into the wild and sacrificed all but shreds of their humanity to make it out again. We knew could not burden our fellow man with the paralyzing account of our trials, so we made a pact then and there, on a precipice above Darsheeling, to never tell a sole what we had seen and done. Without a doubt it was the easiest promise I have ever kept, for when we got back to town, no one asked.


The air in Varanassi is thick with ashes of the dead. You can feel them in your lungs, in your eyes, and in your nose. It is one of the oldest inhabited parts of the world and it has been dealing in death for millennia. The dead are the defining characteristic of the city. Even the mighty Ganges River, life giver of India, dies a quiet gurgling death when it enters the 300 meter sprawl of the city. Varanassi’s sewers and crematoriums have rendered the water along its shores septic, meaning there is no oxygen in the water, meaning there is no life. Only death. Scientifically, symbolically, and practically, anyway you want to look at it Varanassi is the city of death.

Hindus believe almost anyone, regardless of past actions and decisions, whose ashes drift into the hallowed waters of the Ganges will ride its swift currents to Nirvana. The poor travel hundreds of miles to die by its shores, but not all will be accepted. Pregnant women, children under five, lepers, and snake bite victims have no shot at Nirvana. Instead of cremation, their corpses are tied to stones and sunk into the river to await their next incarnation.

More than 200 bodies are cremated at the riverside burning ghats every day of the year. The fires burn non-stop, but the dead still cannot be disposed of quickly enough. Some die in houses, others die on the streets- a spreading pestilence is their estate. The local government recently opened a few electric crematoriums along the Ganges to increase disposal rates, but when it is the last shot at Nirvana, the faithful are reluctant to embrace change.


A couple million people live in Amritsar and everyone is named Singh. It must be hell on the telephone operators. Amritsar is the capital of the state of Punjab and the pulsing heart of Sikhdom. The Sikhs are big, bearded, turban-clad, daggering carrying giants who live by a strict code of conduct: they believe in one God, they work hard, they share, they treat women as equals, and they always tell the truth. They also never cut their hair, and they never conusme tobacco, alchohol, drugs, or meat.

Sikhs are undoubtedly some of the nicest and most formal Indians we met on our travels. Aside from their amicable personalities I was struck by their sheer size. If India had an NFL the Punjabi Punishers would trample the rest of the countries lineman into the dirt. It would be no contest, which is probably why such a league has never taken off.

Most of the guys you run into in India are skinny and lanky with big goofy grins that split their faces wider than the seams on a fat guy’s pants. They look like… well, me actually. But the Punjabi guys have shoulders to match their grins. When they are not gaurding the India/Pakistan border or hustling about righting wrongs, these Indian titans pull cars around from hooks in their backs. Seriously. One afternoon, I witnessed five men inching down the street under the midday sun dragging compact Tata cars by two metal hooks piercing their latisimus dorsi. The last and largest titan was hooked to a brightly adorned mini-bus. If that is the price of stature then I count my blessings I was born a shrimp.

The Food

We became vegetarians quickly in India, though it directly violated my longstanding principles of carnivanity- a specialized version of outlandish self worship and animal sacrifice (it’s not for the humble or the squeamish I assure you). Traveling abroad is always a give and take though, so we gave up our blood-lusting, egomaniacal ways and took home some parasites.

Please don’t be misled; the parasites had nothing to do with food and everything to do with the water. Unless of course the food had water in it making it guilty by association and deserving of an equal punishment under law (my sisters is in Law school).

Nevertheless, Indian food is unusually delicious and I forgave it as quickly as I forgave the beautiful cheerleader who puked in my backpack on that magical fall day in high school. Sure it was gross, but she puked in my bag, out of all the bags in the cafeteria. And when she finished whipping the spittle from her luscious lips she looked deep into my eyes and said, “Oops.” Sigh.

Normally, I am not a vegetable guy. I impose G. Dub style sanctions on any roughage that makes it onto my plate; cordoning them off from the rest of the meal less they infect my decadently unhealthy delicacies with their extremist nutrients. In Indian food, however, vegetables are the delicacies. Vegetable Kurma and Spinach Paneer taste so good that you don’t even know they are healthy. Maybe their not, maybe they are worse than a bacon-wrapped hotdog- a traditional carnivanity delight- as long as they don't taste like yard clippings, I don't care.

While travelling in India let the the chefs throw whatever they've got into your omelettes. Acquiesce to any veggie curry or dosa on the menu. Invite any bizarre spelling of “suite and sower vegeaoutables” onto your plate without fear that it will neither satisfy nor satiate. Hindus are prohibited from eating the bloated cows that lumber through their city streets discharging mine fields of feces. And, after watching one particuarly stupid specimen chew its way through an entire FedEx shipping box, I lost my interest in meat as well.

Trust the local tastes. They won’t disappoint. Hindus make their vegetables taste so good they don’t even miss meat. Only let me caution you against ordering anything on the menu that you do recognize. No matter how familiar you are with the name of the dish, the platter that arrives will be as foreign as the country in which you ordered it.

Thursday, May 11, 2006


Bollywood openly touts something Hollywood always tried to conceal: it is much cheaper to gather all of the ethnic faces around you and film them standing in front of a backdrop of their country than it is to pack up production and travel there. Thus, recruiting whities in Mumbai is big business for directors who want to set scenes in the West.

We’d heard other backpackers talk about being extras nonchalantly; remarking that it was only Bollywood, and that the billion dollar, million viewer industry was really no big deal. We’d seen them play it off with the cool detachment of a 50s greaser and we wanted it. We wanted it bad.

We wanted to shrug our shoulders about hamming it up with Indian stars on par with Elvis and Ted Danson. We wanted the locals we met on the trains to gasp when we dropped Bollywood names, and we wanted to brush away their awe as casually as we brushed away the sweat dripping unceasingly from our brows. There is something truly infuriating about people who run into big names and think nothing of it, and we wanted to infuriate.

We set out early on Ben’s birthday for a full day of wandering around Mumbai in 104 degree heat prepared to do whatever we was necessary to get noticed by the Bollywood scouts. I wrapped my luck rocketship underpants around my head for extra potency and Ben greased himself to battle a local monkey, confident that the stunt would draw every talent scount in town, but it wasn't necessary. Our recruitment took about three minutes.

I assumed it was due to our astonishing good looks and the considerable influence of my rocket ship underpants. Then, the ugliest German guy wearing no underpants at all was recruited right behind us. He looked like a cross between Dolph Ludgren and Thundro from the Herculoids. And his shirt… well if tie die came in vomit then that was it. So much for standards.

When we got to wardrobe they made the German guy take off his shirt. I swear that act alone will raise the box office revenue $100,000. Then they dressed the birthday boy in a lavender suit and me in some leather pants. They must have glimpsed my inner rock star.

We spent the next eight hours holding fake drinks in a London “club” scene, watching high-heeled Philippina girls fumbled and collided their way through a 16 count dance sequence.

All in all we had a really good time. We made some great friends, we wore cool costumes, and we stood close enough to Amatab Bachan (the biggest Bollywood star in the galaxy) to see the stitching in his hair piece. At the end of the day they handed us two butter and cucumber sandwiches (with the crust cut off to show they cared), 500 Rupees, and dropped us at a bar where we proceeded to tell every local who would listen that we just spent the day hanging with Big B (Amatab’s pet name) with none of the nonchalance we'd so coveted.


Goa is where all those drum totting, dread-locked, yoga-worshipping, painfully untalented flower children go when they wilt. But in spite of all that, or maybe because of it, it is still a pretty cool place. Around 6:15, when the sun goes down and all the yoga heads have tuckered themselves out after a day of breathing and posturing, the bats swoop out of their caves, twirling and diving, gorging themselves on mosquitoes that spent the previous night gorging themselves on me.

Tourists who passed the day nursing Honeybee Brandy hangovers in their own bamboo caves follow the bats lead. Some pick up beers, others pick up fire and they all twirl and dive into each others arms in a bass-infused, seafood and alcohol frenzy. Like vacationing parents the sun returns to only the faintest remnants of the night’s festivities, a beer bottle here, a cigarette butt there, and an old hippie barely awake in a lawn chair reciting incoherent poetry.


Hampi is a place unto itself. Mountains of reddish boulders the size of RVs rise like drip castles out of bright green rice paddies that stretch into every flat space. The rice patties feed off the dark rivers that slither through the landscape like eels and we in turn feed off them. At any given moment I expected to see Wile E. Coyote hurtling across the sky, falling victim yet again to some hilariously flawed ACME product.

Hampi is a backpackers dream: cheap lodging, good food, and limitless excursions. It hosts some 1200 temples and one beautiful lake scattered among its boulders. Surprisingly, our unorthodox travel priorities found us at the lake 1200 times and only once at a temple. Hanuman’s temple, where we watched a two-foot monkey muscle a bunch of bananas away from a six-foot Canadian. The monkey had five of the bananas in its mouth before the Canadian knew what happened (see photo below). And they want a seat on the security counsel. Ha!

Without hesitation I can say that this was my favorite place in India. Go. Try the lemonana (mint lemonade) or anything else on the Israeli menu. The Israelis have been visiting Hampi long enough to leave some delicious recipes in their wake. Trust them. Also, rent a motorcycle. When it breaks down, put more gas in it. Apparently, that is how they go.


There was one cool thing in Bikaner. This is it.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Tour Guides

They are a bunch of drunks; the whole surly lot of them. We just paid handsomely for some idiot to take us hiking in the biosphere in Ooty, or Uthalimanipaloememnanmenan, as the locals pronounce it. He came highly recommended by notable sources: fellow travelers, The Lonely Planet and ALF. Let me be the first to say that each one of the sources is full of crap, or cats in the sense of the latter. He showed up smelling like whiskey and staggering around worse than new born colt. Then he passed out under a bush during a mandated "acclimatization stop." We stood at about 1500 meters at this point. We played frisbee for a while to let him sleep it off, then Ben poked him with a stick to make sure he wasn’t dead.

For the remainder of the climb our guide hiked about 30 meters in front of us shouting at himself the whole way. From my vantage point he seemed to be giving himself a very animated tour. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, his tour did not include us. After two hours like this we reached the summit, a harrowing 2600 meters. The view was breathtaking but that did not account for the wrenching gasps emanating from our trusty guide. I handed him my water bottle which he drained most of and spilled the rest. He thanked me and then asked if we had any questions. We did not. He kept goading us, assuring us that our questions need not be confined to the biosphere. He boasted that his knowledge of Indian history and culture was as deep as the lakes. Ben caved. He asked when Jainism and Hinduism split and why. Our erudite guide responded that the biosphere was formed some 60 years ago. The droughts must have affected lake depths in this region.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006


The only way to see India is by train. Anyone who tells you different has never been thrown around the inside of an Indian bus like a clown at a rodeo. Actually, now that I think of it, a helicopter would be a decent way to see the country, or rocket boots! Yeah, rocket boots. Okay, let's start again. The only way to see India is by rocket boots. But until China sets up monkey staffed rocket boot plant, none of us will be able to afford them. So trains it is.

The trains in India are cheap, reliable, and guarantee interaction with colorful locals. My favorite so far was the flaming transvestite from Bikaner who entered our compartment slapping his sari-clad thigh and huffing through his nose. I had no idea what to make of this guy, but with emphatic nods and gestures I convinced him that Ben was extremely interested in all that he had to offer. Another prize was the mouthy, sweater-vested bureaucrat who happens to hold the world record for motorcycling through the five highest mountain passes in the world in the least amount of time. He is currently in touch with Guinness to make it official.

Yes the trains in India are a wonderful experience. They never seem to top 30 miles an hour and can't make it 15 miles without stopping at another village. People seem to live absolutely everywhere in India. Currently about 10, 000 people permanently live in the Calcutta train station. Ben even found a family of seven crammed into his fanny pack. Talk about valuable real-estate, Trump Fanny Packs can't be far BEHIND. Ha! (I sincerely apologize for this pun and promise to restrain myself in the future. Please keep reading. Pretty please.)


Camels are goofy animals. Their faces are incongruous combinations of Betty Boop eyelashes and the thick lipped, dopey grin of an overweight Hannah-Barbera sidekick. They slurp up any desert brush with thorns on it and chew on it all night long- a sound like boots walking in wet gravel. They never move too quick and can take a nap anytime, anywhere. People rag on them for their smell, but no water means no bathing, and after four daysin the desert we were in no position to point fingers. As they say down South, "God made the dirt and the dirt don't hurt."

The desert was peaceful but far from empty. Everyday we ran accross shepards who wander the parched terrain with their flocks until the rains arrive and wash them back to their furrowed, expectant fields. Some have been wandering for four years now. When the rains return, the deset soil is said to turn rich and black and produce enough hair oil seed to put Soul Glow out of business.

We passed the cool evening hours playing dune to dune frisbee. The desert is the perfect place for frisbee. No wind, no obstacles, no interruptions, and no shoes necessary. The stars and moon are so bright that you can even play at night. If you ever go, take a frisbee. Sure, sure most people will make a lot of noise about water and sun protection, but their priorities are all backwards. A good, heavy frisbee will make your trip memorable.