Eating up India

We’ve had good news and bad news about eating in India. After a full month of consuming almost exclusively Indian food, I can count the number of bad meals on one hand. By “bad,” I mean less than delicious. The good news is we haven’t once been afflicted with traveler’s diarrhea. The bad news is we’re getting fatter.Among middle-aged Indians, the full-figured look is a common one. Now we better understand why.

To anyone on a low-carb diet (a regime I’ve at least partly adopted over the past two years), India is hell. Everywhere we’ve traveled, the meat choices have been limited to chicken and mutton, plus fish in some areas. (We’ve seen pigs out and about, but we’ve been told that the caste formerly known as untouchable is the only group that eats them. And Hindus consider cows to be sacred, so beef never shows up on the menu.) Most often, meat hasn’t been an option at all. Vegetables cooked in butter, with Indian spices and often chunks of cheese thrown in, are invariably tasty. And who can resist eating them without the delicious rice and/or fantastic breads — naans and chapatis and pappadams and other variations? Not me.A typical lunch: cashews in a cream sauce, peas and cheese in a mild spicy red sauce and yummy garlic/butter naan.

We’ve been surprised to learn that the purest form of vegetarianism here requires eschewing certain items grown underground, such as onions and garlic, partly because believers worry about insects that might be killed during the cultivation of such plants. I still don’t understand why eggs are on the taboo list for the pure-veg eateries, but they are. The new, upscale hotel where we’re currently staying, for example, refuses to serve any form of eggs because of some ethical issue. That limits breakfast almost exclusively to cereal and porridge, pan-fried flat breads, deep-fried savory rice balls, potatoes in multiple forms, beans, toast, and doughnuts. Dr. Atkins would not approve.On the breakfast buffet this morning: deep-fried herb-flavored rice patties. We both thought they were yummy.

Prohibitions against drinking alcohol also dot the landscape. The entire state of Bihar (where we made our Buddhistic pilgrimage) banned all liquor about 18 months ago — not just in restaurants or liquor stores but also imported in one’s suitcase from some neighboring non-dry state. People warned us not to try sneaking any in, lest we risk serious jail time. Once in Bihar, this seemed pretty ludicrous. We didn’t spot a single booze-sniffing police dog. But by then it was too late for cocktails.

In Uttar Pradesh, where Varanasi is located, we saw liquor stores, but they were located well outside the Old City. Even the fancy palace where we stayed for two nights served no alcohol, not even beer. We’re still puzzled by this, as folks have told us that nowhere in India’s holy books is drinking forbidden (unlike in Islam). We were startled when in another restaurant overlooking the Ganges, the waiter asked us if we wanted a beer. Of course we did! We found it amusing that we had to pay for our large can of Heineken in cash. They took a credit card for the rest of the our meal.

The beer, when available, is undistinguished. It’s doubtless contributing to our suspected weight gain. But I prefer getting a little fatter to losing weight on the diarrhea diet. To avoid intestinal turmoil, we’ve avoided street food, tempting though it often is.Note that the cook is squirting the batter into the boiling oil. Then you dip the results into sugar syrup and get what’s known as jalebis.Although we didn’t eat them from the street vendor, the ones we sampled in our hotel were surprisingly likable.

We’ve broken a few rules; couldn’t resist some uncooked (though always peeled) fruits and vegetables. And we’ve faithfully consumed our Pepto-Bismol tablets (two each per person) after every meal.

We’re hoping the good gut health will continue. The food choices may change somewhat soon, however. We have only six more nights in Rajasthan, and then we’ll head south.

Happy Diwali

“Did you enjoy Diwali?” the young computer-science student sitting across from me on the train asked. She was beaming.

Hey kid, I thought to myself. I’d never heard of Diwali five years ago. “Oh yes, it was great!” I lied. It would have been impolite to say, “Bah. Humbug.”

Last summer when I realized Steve and I would be in Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan, for Diwali, I was excited. By then I’d learned that Diwali is the ancient Hindu festival of light. It unfolds late every fall, timed with the phases of the moon. Two years ago around Diwali time, we happened to be in Singapore, which has a large ethnic Indian population. The lights in the Indian part of town dazzled us then, and I imagined it would be even cooler to experience Diwali in India itself.

As with Christmas, preparations for Diwali start weeks ahead of the climactic day. People clean and paint their houses; women shop for new outfits. As in the run-up to the American holiday, homes and businesses are adorned with colored lights. Folks stock up on weird-looking sweets…like these…and these.

Steve and I walked into Jaipur’s Old City on the night of November 7.We entered through this gate and saw ladies in their new finery making offerings to various gods.So many men and women and children were out to view the decorations and buy desserts, the honking of taxis and tuk-tuks made it hard to hear the Diwali music blaring over loudspeakers.

Steve was charmed by the fact that humans on opposite sides of the globe came up with such similar celebrations around the same time of year. I agree, and I also thought some of the lights were impressive…like this street.This was more the norm, though.

What made me less of a Diwali fan is the holiday’s other essential element: loud explosions. Some of these resulted from the setting off of fireworks. I like fireworks, and I don’t mind the noise they produce. But I dislike firecrackers — the sort that make you jump and wonder if someone hasn’t just exploded an actual bomb. Or a series of them! Cannon fire. Hand grenades. These are some of the comparisons we made as the explosions walloped our ears not just Wednesday night, but also Thursday and Friday. Besides the noise, the firecrackers produce so much smoke it contributes to northern India’s hellish air pollution, according to an online article I read. (Another huge factor is farmers burning their spent crops to prepare for the next planting.)

Whatever the exact cause, by Thursday morning, my iPhone was reporting that the air pollution level in Jaipur was beyond Unhealthy, beyond Very Unhealthy. It had reached the red zone of Hazardous (somewhere in the mid-500s. To put that in perspective, I think it was 50 in San Diego that morning). This was the sight that greeted us as we walked outside our guesthouse that morning.Not smoky enough for you? Burn some garbage!

We spent Friday being driven around for the day (for $21), and at one point, gazing at the beautiful ruin of a palace in the middle of a lake, I asked our driver/guide if the pollution was less bad at certain times of the year. He looked offended. “That is fog, madam!” he declared. “Not pollution!” He told me whenever he went to Delhi, the air was so bad it hurt his lungs to breathe it. But the Jaipur air didn’t do that. It was harmless fog, caused by the cold winds from the Himalayas blowing south.

Through the haze (whatever its cause), terra-cotta-colored Jaipur does offer a lot to see.The current maharajah, just 20, still lives in the palace at the heart of the city.That’s him, with the sword, surrounded by his grandmother, mom, and siblings.

The palace is filled with interesting objects, such as this giant silver vessel. One of the maharajahs had it filled with water from the Ganges, for him to drink on a trip to London. (Note that Steve prefers to travel lighter.)

The founder of Jaipur, Jai Singh II, was also a passionate astronomer. The observatory he built in the Old City, starting in 1728, is filled with sundials and other enormous instruments. He also started construction of the so-called Amber Fort, both monumental and beautiful.

You can ride up the hill to it on an elephant.

I thought it was the best fort I’d ever seen until we moved on to Jodhpur, whose Mehrangarh fort compares favorably with anything the CG artists have conjured up for Game of Thrones.The spikes in the door were supposed to deter war elephants from battering in the gate.

One view of the so-called Pleasure Room in the palace within the fort.

The ceiling in one of the maharajah’s bedrooms.

I’m pretty sure India has other unbelievably showy forts, but we won’t see them. We’re still in Rajasthan, but this morning we traveled to Pushkar for one of the greatest camel fairs in the world. Steve has forbidden me to bid on any, but it should still be interesting.

The view of Jodhpur’s Mehrangarh Fort at night, from the little haveli where we stayed.

How to catch a tiger

Now I know the secret to seeing a tiger in Ranthambore National Park. Go in May or June, the peak of the dry season. Many of the trees in the park lose their leaves; streams dry up; waterholes shrink. With the undergrowth reduced and the tigers’ drinking sources limited, 90% of safari-goers encounter the animal superstars. The only problem: temperatures at this time of year typically are 110 to 120 degrees.

When we visited the park earlier this week, it was cold at dawn, particularly when we were racing through Sawai Madhopur (the town that adjoins the park) in a open-top 4WD vehicle that carried Steve and me, four Indian tourists, a guide, and a driver.Our crew that morning, minus the guide, who took this photo.

Even under the heavy blankets provided by our hotel, I shivered. It didn’t take long to enter the park, though, and soon Steve and I were too distracted by the landscape to be bothered by the chill.This was India, home to 1.2 billion humans, yet it felt like a less crowded place, say, a (smoggy) forest in Idaho after heavy rains that had made everything lush and green. At times the vegetation pressed in so close we had to duck to avoid being scratched in the face by branches. We passed marshland……and stands of banyan trees that took our breath away.Here and there, we glimpsed the 1000-year-old fort that topped a distant cliff top. (Later we read that the wall surrounding it is almost 5 miles long.)

We saw few other vehicles but many types of animals, many of them amazingly tame:Spotted deer…

Sambar deer…

Nilgai (a type of Indian antelope).

Wild boar…Crocodile.

And wonderful birds:A cormorant drying his wings in the sun.

.Owls snoozing in a tree hole.So many peacock they reminded us of seagulls in San Diego.

This guy is known as the dentist of the jungle. Guides told us that they all but climb into the tigers’ mouths, cleaning their teeth, a mutually beneficial service that the tigers tolerate.

Tigers are the maharajahs in this part of the touristic world. Guides promise solemnly they will do their best to find them. I whispered to Steve that they probably get bigger tips when they succeed, but it also feels like there’s more involved. The guides may lack guns, but they act like hunters, keen and fiercely competitive with the other guides; maybe with the tigers, too.

The landscapes and other animals were reward enough for Steve and me. We saw fresh tiger tracks, so it was clear the big cats were near, but when we left the park that morning without having seen any, we shrugged. Only 20 percent of safari-goers at this time of year ever get lucky, we’d been told.

We departed on a second safari just hours after the first, and three of our companions in the jeep were the same as from the morning: a charming mom and dad from Kolkata, on safari with their only son. He is a conservation biologist who as it turned out had studied tiger populations at a couple of other parks. We had a different guide for this second outing. Dark and grizzled, he seemed even more obsessed with scoring a tiger sighting for us than the morning guide had been.We all but ignored all the other animals we passed. We searched one area after another. With the sun getting closer to the horizon, we waited on a high ridge overlooking a canyon; listened to the birds. Saw no tigers.

The light was fading, and we were heading to the park exit when we came upon two other jeeps stopped on a heavily forested section of road. They had spotted a tiger, one of their guides told ours with excitement. Our guide grew almost frantic, scanning the brush, directing the driver to position the vehicle so we could see it too.

“Back!” He barked in Hindi. “Back, back, back BACK!” I aimed my new Sony with its marvelous zoom lens. This is what I got:So now I know a second way to see a tiger in India: get lucky.

Steve and I had one final outing scheduled for our final morning in Sawai Madhopur. We’d expected to be placed in the same vehicle as the charming Indian family, but the assignments are random, and instead we set out with an older South African couple and two young Germans. Once again our guide was obsessed with finding us a tiger, and this morning we again struck out. Later that day, however, I got an email from Arghya, the young Indian conservation biologist. (I’d send him my photo from the previous afternoon.) “Today we got 2 child male and one adult,” he wrote. “The two male babies were just within 2 or 3 ft from the car.” He sent several photos, including these:

Later he wrote me again, declaring (among other things) that “Nature is our mother..every part of it is her important organs..every large and small components of bio and abiotic diversity.” Some animals were so attractive people came from all over the world to see them, he noted. “Our idea is: make these attractive things the flagships and just draw attention of everyone to the other interesting parts as well.” Arghya was studying for the exam required to work in India’s central administrative service of wildlife and nature. He wanted to devote his life to helping Mother Nature recover.

So maybe that’s a third way to see tigers in India: acquire good karma.

Taj schmaz

Actually, the sight of the Taj Mahal did not disappoint me. Steve and I set the alarm for 5:15 am, threw on some clothes, and slipped out of the Muslim home in which we were staying. We hurried down the dark street outside, where the temperature was almost chilly. Twenty minutes later, we stood at the Western gate of one of the most famous tourist attractions in the world.

Everyone knows what it looks like, right? I’d seen countless photographs. So why is it that walking through the archway into the huge grounds that contain it made my eyes widen; flooded me with a surge of pleasure? The proportions of the lawns, the trees, the walkways, the four minarets, that swollen white dome — the way they relate together —feels so right. The famous white structure is massive, yet the recessed archways and delicate marble latticework that were cut into every side give this great landmark a soul-stirring beauty.It’s pretty from every angle…And pretty up close.I’d had to guess how many selfies are taken there. Weird posing is also super popular.

Steve and I spent close to two hours on the grounds. We went inside the great dome (surprisingly uninteresting.) But I’m not going to write any more about the Taj Mahal. You go there to feel that jolt of moving from second-hand knowledge to direct experience and wonder. There’s no recreating that with words.

Since we only had one full day in Agra, we had girded our loins for Serious Sightseeing. We walked back to our B&B, ate breakfast, then caught a tuk-tuk to the gigantic and famous Agra Fort. It’s very impressive, too, but after another hour or so of poking around in it (and more than 11,000 steps logged on my iPhone), I was flagging. We also needed money. The ATM that was supposed to be steps from the fort was closed, according to a local. So we hired another tuk-tuk to take us near the South Gate of the Taj, where Lonely Planet said we would find several ATM machines. We found: narrow lanes jammed with honking tuk-tuks, taxis, pedicabs, bikes, cows, pedestrians, ladies bearing heavy bundles on their heads. We found one ATM that was padlocked shut, and one that spat out rupees for my card (but not Steve’s.)

I think we started to feel burned out while eating a dismal lunch (our first bad meal in India) at a forlorn rooftop restaurant that Lonely Planet had described as a “friendly, family-run…nice choice” for both western and Indian food. Still we soldiered on, returning to the guesthouse to rest for only about 90 minutes before setting out again in yet another tuk-tuk.

Because we’re running dangerously low on insect repellant, we had asked our host, Faiz, where we might buy some. He said no one in the neighborhood would have it for sale. (This struck us as odd, in a country with so many disease-carrying bugs.) Faiz instead arranged for a tuk-tuk driver to take us to a large medical-supply store some distance away.

I guess I was expecting maybe… a shopping mall? With something like a Rite-Aid? You could call where we went a pharmacy, but one unlike any I ever patronized in my long-ago childhood. It was as big as some Rite-AIDS, and lined with hundreds upon hundreds of labeled bins.This shows less than half the interior space.

Customers have to stand at a front counter and tell the clerks what they need. The clerk who came to us appeared never to have heard of insect repellant, but a friendly middle-aged Indian man next to me intervened and explained in Hindi what I wanted. The clerk searched and searched and came back with anti-itching cream, which we rejected. He finally found a little stash of three bottles of citronella oil. We bought one for 85 rupees (about $1.20), even though we doubt it will do much to protect us.

I also needed Kleenex. (My runny nose and cough haven’t improved.) But the pharmacy didn’t sell any. Nor did any of the tiny roadside shops our driver stopped at on our way to the “Baby Taj,” another of Agra’s architectural wonders.Nice, but nothing like Big Mama.

We spent about 40 minutes there and another half hour at the garden across the river from the big Taj. People say it’s lovely to see the light from the setting sun on the monument, but yesterday afternoon the sun sank into smog so thick it blocked all the color.This was as good as it got.

The driver was supposed to take us back to our guesthouse at this point, but earlier in the day, Steve had managed to make a dinner reservation at the Oberoi Amarvilas. The driver looked surprised when we asked him to take us there. Rooms at this Oberoi (unlike the very reasonably priced Oberoi in Kolkata, where we stayed) run from $900 to more than $1000 a night. We knew dinner would be pricy.

We didn’t care. We yearned for quiet and serenity. To their credit, the staff at the Oberoi didn’t betray any revulsion over how beat up we must have looked. They escorted us through an exquisite garden, through the stunning lobby, to a restaurant where turbaned waiters served us delicious things to drink and eat. We savored every sip, every mouthful.

We also talked at length about whether it was a mistake to stay at Faiz’s guesthouse, which is clean and reasonably comfortable and cost less than half the price (per night) than the dinner we were consuming. But it’s hardly luxurious.Here’s the street in front of Faiz’s home. The road leading to the Oberoi looks quite different.

I had an insight. When traveling in India, you can cushion yourself from much of what’s been wearing us down. You can hire people to plan your trip and move you around in air-conditioned cars and buses. You can sleep in places that don’t cost as much as this Agra Oberoi but still are much posher than Faiz’s home. Traveling this way costs a lot more in money but less in stress.

Or you can do what we’ve been doing, mixing up the fancy hotels and palaces with mid-range ones and guest houses and B&Bs; riding on the trains and in the tuk-tuks; eating in some of the local joints.This takes a toll on our nerves and sometimes our mood, but it not only costs less. It gives us what feels like a wealth of information about the way contemporary Indians live. We get to see things like that pharmacy; get to shop at the tiny open stands. Steve and I hunger for that kind of knowledge, and we will go home (if we survive) richer in compassion for what ordinary Indians — not just the poor masses but middle-class ones — put up with. We’ll be stuffed with memories of one great conversation after another. And we’ll better appreciate things like Kleenex and Rite-AIDS and Amtrak.

Of course, we still have four weeks of Indian travel ahead of us. Will we hate the place by then? This morning, at least, our glum mood had lifted. We ate a quick breakfast cooked by Faiz’s mother (who lives in the house along with other family members) and bade goodbye to Faiz.We rode in a beautiful new taxi to the train station, walked in, and learned that our train this morning had been delayed. It probably would arrive at least eight hours late. We called Faiz, who hopped in his own car, drove it to the station, collected us, and helped us arrange a private car and driver.A nice one!

Once underway, I managed to get on the Indian Railways website (by connecting to my iPhone’s hotspot).But I got a message saying there’s no refund “if train is running more than 3 hours late or train is canceled.”

No further disaster struck us on the five-and-a-half-four drive…unlike this poor truck that we passed.

I’m posting this now from our hotel, which is wonderfully soothing. Tomorrow at 6:30 am, we’ll set off on another attempt to see some wild Bengal tigers. The guidebook says Ranthambore National Park is the best place in Rajasthan to do that.

The sexiest stones in the world

Many years ago, Steve and I had a friend who went to India. When she returned, she talked about her adventures, which included a visit to temples that bore remarkably erotic carvings. These shocked our friend so much — with their explicitness and wild invention — that the memory of them stuck with me. Steve and I wanted to include some temples on our itinerary, so why not the compound in Khajuraho?

From San Diego, I booked berths on an air-conditioned third-class sleeper train that was scheduled to leave Varanasi around 6 pm Wednesday and arrive in Khajuraho shortly before dawn the next day. But in a moment of true enlightenment (it came upon our arrival in Varanasi, when we stopped for some mysterious reason and then didn’t move for two hours even though our train was just outside the station), we realized we would probably loathe the 12-plus-hour night train. Amazingly, the next day we were able to book seats on a 32-minute flight on Jet Air, cancel our night train tickets, and even get a refund (about $14) for the tickets we didn’t use.

The flight was flawless: almost empty, on time, and we even got a little sandwich and water during our brief minutes aloft. Khajuraho has a new airport terminal that makes San Diego’s looks shabby, but we didn’t spend much time in it. By 2 pm we were at our hotel. We spent that afternoon relaxing, and at 8:30 the next morning, we set off with a guide arranged by the hotel.

With him, we took a tuk-tuk to the most important cluster of temples, what’s known as the Western Group. This is a vast compound covered with emerald lawns and huge old trees.Set among them are about a dozen structures. The area is breathtaking; even at a distance, it ranks among the greatest ceremonial sites Steve and I have visited: Angkor Wat, Machu Picchu, Teotihuacan.These ladies were replanting the lawn with individual seeds.

Up close, it was even more amazing. Stone carvings cover almost every square foot of the thousand-year-old buildings and their interiors.This is a huge sandstone wild boar– the third incarnation of the god, Shiva.And this is some of what’s carved into his side.

As our guide escorted and instructed us, I realized I had gotten the wrong idea from what our friend described so long ago. It is true that every kind of sex is depicted: orgies……wacky positions from the Kama Sutra, masturbation……but it feels like every other aspect of human life is also captured. Soldiers slaughter each other with the aid of war elephants. A famous carving depicts a young woman applying her eye make-up. Another girl extracts a thorn from her foot:People bathe, stretch, drink together… …listen to music.The carvers’ sense of humor is obvious. In one of the most infamous scenes, a man is fornicating with a horse, while two men on each side await their turn. A third covers his eyes in disgust at the barbarism — except that the carver makes it clear he’s peeking.The elephant looks like he’s got a sense of humor too.

It’s splendid, brimming with life and motion. After about 90 minutes, Steve was so overwhelmed he yearned to wander through the whole site again, to better absorb it. But I wanted to visit the Jain temple compound on the other side of town, so I headed there with Karana, the guide.

Jainism is an alternative to Hinduism that began in the 6th Century BC. It rejects the idea of castes and preaches that liberation can be achieved by purifying the soul. The most important way of doing that is through non-violence. In an amazing stroke of luck for us, Khajuraho had been hosting a four-month-long Jain festival (that will wrap up this coming week). The compound grounds were jammed with Jains from all over the country, including some of the holiest men in all of India.Some of the Jain monks never wear clothes. Like this one. Outside of the four-month-long monsoon season, where they congregate in some location (e.g. Khajuraho this year), the Jain monks wander naked through the countryside, praying and preaching and meditating.One of their only possessions is the brush they carry to sweep insects out of their path to avoiding injuring them.

Steve and I saw even more temples the next day, though none as marvelous as those in the Western group. In the morning, we rented bicycles and pedaled through the town and countryside. If it weren’t for the smog, which seemed worse than that in Kolkata, the area would be lovely. The city isn’t crowded, and there’s little traffic, so it feels quiet. A few temples are located in the surrounding farmland, and we cycled past folks drawing water from a well…...and kids swimming and bathing in a local stream.We pedaled through a village where a woman was slamming handfuls of cow dung on the facade of her house (home maintenance? We weren’t sure.)I think it’s the only glimpse we’ll get of rural life in the heart of India. I’ll probably remember it as clearly as the riotous, naughty temple stone tapestry. But we’ve left it behind us now. I’m writing this on a train heading for the heart of Indian tourism. With luck, I’ll post it from our home stay in Agra, about a ten-minute walk from the Taj Mahal.

Immersion in the Ganga

On our second night in Varanasi, the holiest city in India, Steve and I found ourselves seated in a balcony overlooking a scene that felt like a movie spectacle — something Stephen Spielberg might dream up when he was feeling manic.My photo doesn’t do it justice. It doesn’t clearly show all the small boats congregated in front of the seven platforms or the priest standing on each platform, and of course you can’t hear the continuous bells and the plaintive singing. Every night in Varanasi after sunset, before a vast assembly, the priests go through a complex ritual: blowing into conch shells, wafting incense dispensers, waving great silver candelabras. It’s part religious ceremony; part performance art.

On a balcony below us, a huge brown cow watched the activity. Cows roam everywhere in Varanasi, in narrow alleyways and major thoroughfares; they wander through the cremation ghats, munching on the flowers brought to honor the dead. We saw countless monkeys too, scampering along power lines, scaling building facades, hanging out in the byways. We were warned not to stare at them or approach the babies, lest the mothers charge and bite us. During our four days in Varanasi, we saw no cobras, though we heard that locals sometimes defang them and allow them to roam the old city. Pilgrims like them, reportedly, because the Hindu god Shiva has the hood of a cobra.

Pilgrims from all over India come to Varanasi to bathe in the Ganges (which Indians call the Ganga). It’s the mother river, most sacred; people believe if you take a dip in it, you can short-circuit countless reincarnation cycles and go directly to heaven. The city is thought to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited places on Earth, and in the heart of it, great stone embankments with steps built into them line the riverfront. Strolling along these “ghats,” as they’re called, is endlessly entertaining. I’ve never felt more like I was on another planet. You see……holy men……some of whom will bless you. There are……ladies in saris tidying up……kids playing street hockey……pilgrims bathing…...and shopping. These are sealed bottles of Ganga water, ready to take home for your friends. (To our friends, sorry. We resisted.)

One morning we watched the sun rise.That’s not a typo. It was sunrise, not sunset. Varanasi’s air appears no cleaner than Kolkata’s.

That same evening we were rowed to one of the two ghats where believers are cremated around the clock (another purification method ensuring instant access to paradise).To our surprise, we smelled no ugly odors.This is because the fires burn deodorizing banyan tree wood mixed with sandalwood, we were told.

Later Steve and I strolled on foot to the same cremation ghat, where around the back we saw the wood stacked up……and carefully weighed for each funeral pyre.

Over the years, I’ve asked many folks who traveled in India what they thought of it. In Malaysia, for example, we met a middle-aged American musician who had just spent two months studying classical music on the subcontinent. He replied, “India is full of many beautiful things. But most of them are invisible.”

I thought of that in Varanasi, where we spent two nights staying in a former palace located next to the most important ghat. Opened as a hotel just two years ago, it doesn’t look like much on the outside, but the inside is a haven of beauty and peace and serenity. Every night musicians played in the central courtyard while a dancer performed classical steps before them. Every morning a flutist sitting on a velvet cushion on an upper floor blew sweet, wistful melodies. The restaurant served the best Indian food we’ve ever tasted.

The other two nights we spent in a guesthouse that cost $14 a night. Compared to the palace, it was spartan. The rooms were spotless, but tiny. And the 31-year-old owner/operator was smart and knowledgeable and generous-hearted. When he unintentionally dropped and lost one of the paper clips we kept in our passports to mark the page with the Indian visa (which every hotel must photocopy!), we told him it was no big deal. But two days later he presented us with a replacement that he went out and bought for us. After we checked out to move to the palace, he invited us to return for his special spiced tea (masala chai). In the conversation we had while sipping it, he felt like a treasured old friend.Steve and I sensed a peacefulness on the ghats of Varanasi, and Sonu said he feels it too. As hard as he works and as crazy as the guesthouse operation can get, he told us he tries to spend an hour or so by the river every day. It re-energizes him. I think there’s also beauty there which you can’t miss seeing.

Training for enlightenment

I don’t call myself a Buddhist, but in recent years, I have found much to admire in the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama (the northern Indian prince who became the Buddha). About 2600 years ago, he famously found enlightenment in a specific place in India: sitting under a fig tree in what is now the small town of Bodhgaya. When I learned that a direct descendant of that tree was roughly on the path between Kolkata and Varanasi, I wanted to see it.

From my clean, orderly desk in San Diego, this seemed reasonable. The Indian Railway website said several days a week a train left Howrah Station in Kolkata at 8:15 am that would arrive in the city of Gaya around 2:50 pm. From Gaya to Bodhgaya was supposed to be only a 30 or so-minute ride in a taxi or auto rickshaw. Lonely Planet said if there was space, we could stay at the peaceful Root Institute for Wisdom Culture, located in “a tranquil, tree-shaded part of town.” A double room with a private bathroom would cost about $20 a night, and we could join in the daily 6:45 am meditation session. As soon as I could, I made a reservation for two nights.

Our journey started off so well! The previous week, Steve and I had walked to Howrah Station to scope out the place. It’s a vast, churning complex, but we managed to find the platform we would depart from. On the actual departure morning, we checked in at the “Enquiry Office,” where the English-speaking clerk scrutinized my printed reservation and instructed us to board at Platform 9. We found our compartment (C in coach H1), took our seats, and chugged out of the station exactly on time.

Just two weeks into our Indian travels, we’ve identified a pattern in our interactions with the locals. We’ll take our seats next to someone on a train or a plane, and at first our seat mates are circumspect. We wonder if they even speak English. (Many people do, but more do not.) After a while, someone will ask one of us a question (often “What is your country?). We answer, and we’re off on a long, entertaining, invariably eye-opening gabfest.

This has happened over and over, and the Poorva Express to Gaya was no exception. One of our compartment mates was Swapan Chakraborty, a 43-year-old entrepreneur (clothing manufacturing and small hotels, among other things.) Another, Deepshri Bhattacharya, was a beautiful and perky 24-year-old who worked as a communications manager for a company off-sourcing customer service. (A third passenger, a 60-year-old business associate of Swapan, didn’t appear to speak any English.) For hours, we chatted happily about everything from the Bihari coal-mining industry to Deepshri’s dreams of graduate study in Canada.Sometime in the early afternoon, Steve noticed on our maps app that the train seemed to be headed away from Gaya, but we guessed it would take a turn south at Patna (the capital of the state, Bihar), and arrive at Gaya probably hours late. It was only about 3:30 that an announcement in Hindi caught Deepshri’s ears. “This train isn’t going to Gaya!” she exclaimed! “It’s going to Patna instead!”

“What?!?” I croaked.

After consultation with one of the conductors, who early in the trip had taken our ticket printout, scrutinized it carefully, and checked us off his own list, everyone agreed that sometime between when I bought the ticket (back in July) and now, the railway authorities had changed the routing. But no mechanism appeared to exist to let us know this, including the conductor’s reading of our ticket just a few hours earlier.

If there was a silver lining to this little travel tornado, it was the time we spent brainstorming with Swapan and Deepshri about what we should do. We could catch one of the local trains in Patna and arrive in Gaya before 10 pm, Swapan insisted. Or we could hire a taxi to drive us directly to Bodhgaya (but that would be expensive; it would involve driving for 3-4 hours in the dark, and we had no idea whether the Root Institute reception desk would even be open whenever we arrived.)

Here I should mention that while in Darjeeling, I had decided maybe we shouldn’t stay at the Root Institute for two nights. Our train to Varanasi on Saturday morning would be departing from Gaya at 5 am. From my orderly desk at home, I’d figured we’d have to get up at an ungodly hour (3:30 am?) but we could then take a taxi from the Root Institute to Gaya in time to catch the that pre-dawn Varanasi train. After our nightmare ride on the toy train, however, I began to think maybe it was insane to assume this would work. So I’d made a reservation online for a hotel in Gaya after our one night near the famous bodhi tree.

With the news of the routing change, and knowing that we had a hotel in Gaya for the next night, Steve and I finally came up with this plan: get off the train in Patna, find a hotel there, then catch a morning train to Gaya. We’d miss the Root Institute entirely, and this made me sad. But with luck, we reasoned, we might arrive by noon, drop off our suitcases at the Gaya joint I’d booked, and have most of the afternoon at the Buddhist holy site.

This is mostly what we did. Pulling into Patna, we exchanged tearful goodbyes with our new best friends for life, Deepshri and Swapan. Then we disembarked into pandemonium; if you told me 50,000 people were crammed into the station and its immediate surroundings, I’d believe it. Somehow we dragged our suitcases up and down multiple sets of stairs — 14 stories worth, according to my iPhone’s Health app), and shouldered our way out of the throng to check in at the City Centre Hotel, included in our guidebook and within sight of the train station. To say it lacked charm is an understatement. But we walked from it to a good South Indian vegetarian restaurant we found with the help of Google Maps, slept well enough…Dawn in beautiful downtown Patna, from our hotel window.

…and the next morning, in the madhouse of the station, miraculously secured tickets to Gaya.This was a big challenge for our puzzle-solving skills; we missed catching the 6:45 am express train, but we caught the express at 11:15, which not only left Patna on time; two and a half hours later, it also arrived in Gaya right on schedule. En route we were entertained by a wide-ranging conversation with a banker from Patna (to which about 6 other Indian guys in our immediate vicinity raptly listened.)The banker and I

The Gaya hotel was even worse than the one in Patna, but we didn’t linger after dropping off our bags. We were on a mission.

The auto rickshaw rides to and from Bodhgaya were jarring, terrifying, indescribably loud; by the time we reached our destination, I felt like blood should be running from my ears from the audible assault. But I’m happy to report the main temple complex, a pedestrian-only zone, is lovely. Steve and I strolled down a broad clean pathway along with hundreds of other pilgrims under rows of fluttering flags.The mood was calm and serene. Outside the main entrance to the most sacred buildings, we had to deposit our cellphones in a locker and pass through a metal detector. (Apparently some wacko set off a bomb a few years ago.) We also hired a guide who turned out to be excellent.

He showed us the highlights: a beautiful meditation garden, numerous shrines, a dramatic, enormous temple structure — and growing next to it, the famous tree. It is a massive, tangled creature but only 140 years old, our guide told us, the fourth generation of the tree that sheltered the Buddha-to-be..Devotees had prepared this offering to the tree.

Buddhists from all over the world shuffled past it and congregated near it. We noted Tibetans doing their bizarre prostrations; acetic looking Japanese, Burmese Buddhists, Indian Buddhists, others meditating in groups. It was a bit chaotic, and I longed to instead meditate in the lovely garden or some other peaceful spot…Like this…Or this…

Or to stay until dark, when our guide said the grounds were most beautiful.But it was growing dark, so we took another auto rickshaw back to the ugly Gaya flophouse. There we got to bed as early as we could. We knew we had to set the alarm for 4:15 to catch the train to the holiest spot in Hinduism.