Shopping in India

We still have eight more days in India, but I already know what has shocked us most: the retail shopping experience. We’ve been in few countries where so much of the commerce consists of tiny storefronts offering only one category of product. Last May, in the middle of the Amazon, we found a modern grocery store in the small town of Santarem (Brazil). But the only time we managed to find anything vaguely similar here was in Jaipur. Then, when we told our guesthouse operator we wanted a grocery store, we had to hire a taxi to drive us to one because it was too far to walk.

The dearth of general stores — even tiny ones — at times has been maddening. I think of our first night in Mumbai (formerly Bombay), last Tuesday. We’d picked up some vodka and wanted to have a drink in our room before venturing out in search of dinner. You can mix vodka with many liquids; our favorite is Schweppes tonic water or orange juice. People describe Mumbai as the New York City of India, and our hotel was in the Fort district (“a dining and shopping epicenter,” in Lonely Planet’s words.) How hard could it be to find a bottle of mix?

REALLY hard, it turns out! Steve and I tromped through street after street, all of them jam-packed with shops. We found places selling stationery-related products, snuff, laundry detergent, photocopying service, cell-phone covers, clothes, tailoring services, and much more I can’t remember. We passed eateries of all sorts, from nice restaurants to cheap Chinese food outlets to countless varieties of street food. But nowhere did we find tonic or even a boxed juice. We must have searched for at least 20 minutes before finally spying a bottle of sugary orange soda for sale. Grouchy and dissatisfied, we gave in, bought a bottle of that, and returned to the hotel to pour a stiff one.

I don’t want anyone who reads this to think no American-style grocery stores exist in India. We’ve seen photos online of glitzy shopping malls that look indistinguishable from the nicest in San Diego.

We’ve also seen plenty of expensive looking stores selling Nike shoes and Coach bags and Zara products like this, even on very decrepit streets. I’m sure there must be grocery stores near the the fancy malls. But Steve and I haven’t been staying in wealthy enclaves in major metropolitan suburbs, but rather in staggeringly dense city centers. We started to wonder if there were no grocery stores around our hotels because the Indian government had outlawed them for some insane reason.

That does not appear to be the case. We got some inkling of the true explanation in Udaipur. The day after we took Shashi’s cooking class, we ran into one of the British couples who’d been our classmates and joined them at a coffee shop. The guy, another Steve, was an engineering manager who’d been living in Bombay for 5 years, while his partner, Allison, spent part of her time with him and part back in England. We had a long delightful conversation, during which we asked about the mysteriously missing grocery stories. They reflected for a moment, then suggested there were a couple of factors.

Very poor people probably paid a few rupees less to buy their fruits, vegetables, and milk products from the vendors who brought those products in from the country and sold them on the sidewalk than they would pay at any grocery store. Also, grocery stores weren’t a part of the culture of the Indian poor.“But there are plenty of middle-class people in India now, aren’t there?” I interjected.

This was true, Alison and Steve agreed. But the reality was that middle- and upper-class Indians could have their servants go out and buy anything they needed. Toothpaste? Toilet paper? A can of tonic water? Send out Rahul, or call the store for takeout service. Bombay Steve told us about opening the door of his apartment one recent day to find a guy bearing a cup of Starbuck’s coffee. (He’d wound up at the wrong apartment.) Most middle- or upper-class Indians would find it beneath their dignity to dash off to a grocery store, Alison and Steve said, adding that in fairness, some felt they were providing needed jobs to their fellows by using their delivery services.

I felt a little staggered to realize I was in a place with such vast numbers of extremely poor people that their existence made grocery stores uneconomical. The absence of the grocery stores didn’t mean you couldn’t get anything you might want. It meant other people would go out and find it and bring it to you if you paid them little more than pennies.

They didn’t need to go to a grocery store to find whatever you wanted because they knew what the various scattered sources were. The importance of such local knowledge was driven home to us our second morning in Bombay. We left the hotel early, before the city felt like quite such a steam bath and walked past the fantastic Victorian-era train station. Here’s what a small part of it looks like:Just north of it begins a series of neighborhoods renowned for their maze-like bazaars. As it turned out, it was too early for many of the shops to be open, but we did pass guys carrying big tubs of fish on their headsand others selling them from tarps on the sidewalk.We passed trucks of suffering and doomed chickens that made me (briefly) consider never eating chicken again.The old Crawford food market (the exterior of which still bears beautiful sculpture work done by Rudyard Kipling’s father)was just coming to life, and within it, I spotted a booth carrying all manner of canned drinks, including our beloved Schweppes (in both Indian and foreign sizes.) Steve was ecstatic. He bought six (Indian) cans from this guy.

Later that morning, we took an Uber car to another nearby train station (Churchgate). I’d read that the famous dabba-wallahs of Mumbai could be found gathering there every day in the late morning. These guys pick up lunchboxes from restaurants and private homes (where ladies earn some money by cooking tasty lunch items and packing them into tins for their customers) and they fan out across the city around noon to deliver them to office workers. I’d seen a charming movie (The Lunchbox) a few years ago about one such guy, and our guidebook also talked about them. (The sidebar claimed that more than 200,000 meals were delivered daily, and a 2002 Forbes Magazine analysis “found that the dabba-wallahs had…a 99.999999% reliability rating.”)

At our hotel we heard that the dabba-wallahs were in decline; corporate canteens were increasingly putting them out of business. I still wanted to try to find some, but at the train station all we saw was this lonely trio.Had we gotten there too late? Were dabba-wallahs as endangered as those Rajasthani camels? I felt a wave of disappointment.

We strolled aimlessly up a prosperous residential boulevard and then down a big commercial street. We popped into a non-self-service pharmacy (where everything for sale is behind counters manned with white-robed clerks) and found the sunscreen/moisturizer I’d been needing. I was too embarrassed to ask those guys if they sold pantiliners (one of my secrets to life on the road with just a few pairs of underwear), but Steve barged into the next pharmacy and emerged moments later with an 88-rupee package of Carefree liners.

Continuing on, we came upon a cluster of men I thought were selling purses or insulated bags. But Steve exclaimed, “It’s them! It’s the lunch guys!”It was indeed a thick congregation of dabbah-wallahs, loading up their conveyances. I hadn’t immediately recognized them because they were using so many insulated bags instead of the traditional tin canisters. Some had dozens of the lunch bags piled up on wooden hand carts……while others stood by bicycles hung with motley receptacles.The face of the modern dabba-wallah.

They milled about for a few minutes, then dispersed to make their deliveries.

We almost missed them because we didn’t know where to look or even exactly what we were looking for. I think more than a few things in India are like that.

An early thanksgiving feast

The city of Udaipur in Rajasthan is famous for the beautiful lake at its heart. It’s been the setting for many movies, with the James Bond franchise’s Octopussy the best known by Americans. We couldn’t believe how many of Udaipur’s guesthouses advertise that they screen Octopussy every single night. Steve and I passed on that, but we did take a boat ride on the water one morning, and we enjoyed the splendid lake views from various rooftop restaurants. What I’ll remember most, however, are the hours we spent in Shashi’s kitchen.

We wound up there because a listing in the “Activities” section of the Lonely Planet’s Udaipur chapter raved about Shashi’s cooking classes. I emailed to see if we could join one and got a response saying the 5:30 pm Saturday (11/17) class had two openings. This was a stretch; on Saturday we had to set the alarm in Jodhpur for 6 am to catch a train. After that five-hour journey, our taxi got stuck in a giant traffic jam. But we didn’t want to miss the opportunity, so precisely at 5:30 pm we walked into a trim little kitchen on the upper floor of a building down the street from our hotel.

Along with Steve and me, the students also included two friendly middle-aged British couples and an adorable pair of French almost-newlyweds who were traveling the world on a six-month sabbatical. Shashi appeared and silently tied little friendship bracelets on each of our wrists (women’s on the left and men’s on the right.) She applied a red stick-on bindi dot in the middle of each woman’s forehead, and more red on our hairlines (the indicator that a woman is married.) Then she sat and told us her story.

She’d been born abut 50 years ago in a village 200 km outside Udaipur. At 19 her family arranged her marriage to a man she’d never met before. But he was handsome and understanding, and they were happy to be blessed with two boys. The kids were 7 and 5, when one day Shashi’s husband was murdered. She didn’t explain the circumstances, but today her face still bears traces of the depth of that tragedy.

It went far beyond the loss of her husband. Rules binding the Brahman caste (into which she was born) declared that she could never remarry (though she was only 32.) She lacked the education to work in any of the limited professions acceptable for Brahmans (traditionally teachers and priests or professionals such as doctors, lawyers, and engineers.) She had no relatives who would take in her and her little boys; no savings or social assistance. To survive, she washed the clothes of foreign tourists and cleaned neighbors’ homes, but she had to do this furtively, because of the caste restrictions.

She hinted at the suffering in those years. Eventually she and her boys got to know an Irish tourist who learned what a good cook she was. He urged her to offer cooking classes to tourists. That seemed impossible; she spoke no English. The Irish guy nonetheless encouraged her, and Shashi screwed up her courage. Somehow it worked. The tourists came. Little by little, she learned English. When a Lonely Planet writer included her in the guidebook’s Udaipur chapter several years ago, that was her big breakthrough. Now, even though her competition has exploded, Shashi teaches two classes daily 5 or 6 months of the year. She’s hardly rich, but through grit and hard work, she’s made a life from the ashes.

We glimpsed her drive once our class got underway. I’ve taken many cooking classes in my life, but none that approached the scope of what this woman covered. She started by teaching us how to make masala chai, the spicy tea that’s ubiquitous in India. We sipped it while we watched her prepare a spicy chickpea-flour batter in which we immersed onion and potato slices.We deep-fried them, then gobbled them down, dipped in two kinds of chutney (coriander and mango) both of which Shashi showed us how to make.

We moved on to the “magic sauce” that’s at the heart of so many Indian dishes. Shashi’s younger son Ashish (who assisted her throughout the night, both in cooking and teaching) explained that if you start with this, you can quickly spin off countless seemingly different dishes. At its base is garlic, ginger, and onion sautéed in oil and then enlivened with key spices: cumin seed, coriander, chili, turmeric, and salt.We made the magic sauce, then we used it to makes several dishes, including curried chickpeas….deep-fried cheese in a tomato-butter sauce, and a vegetable pulao.As each dish was completed, Shashi stacked it on its predecessors,a teasing metal tower that grew more maddeningly tempting as the hours went by, and we grew more and more tired and hungry. But there was more to learn, and lots of joking and laughter to distract us as we toiled. We made chapatti dough; learned out to knead it and cook it on a skillet.Many hands make good chapatti.

We made naan dough, and Shashi demanded that we all handle acquire a basic proficiency with that.

The naan rounds puff up magically as you fry and roast them.

It was well after 10 before we all took seats around the table and dug into the spread we’d created. I can report that everything tasted delicious; it ranked among the best food Steve and I have eaten anywhere on this trip. The conversation flowed, lubricated not by any drop of alcohol but by the common work we’d just shared.

Shashi confided that she doesn’t always enjoy the larger groups, those as big as our eight-some. Sometimes people don’t get along, and some are difficult. But we were good people, she pronounced. I felt as warmed by her praise as I was by the chiles in the food we were digesting. It was clear to me she was not just a good teacher but also a good human being. It was a pleasure to learn that about each other. Preparing and eating a great meal together can teach you that.

Camels in crisis?

Somehow camels have become one of my favorite animals. I think this started in 2002 when I rode one in Luxor (Egypt), on the edge of the Sahara. It felt a bit like being on a gigantic rocking horse — fun and exhilarating and more comfortable than I expected.

A few years later, my dromedarial affection expanded when camels carried Steve and me to an overnight campout in the Moroccan desert. I admired their big, beautiful eyes and sweeping lashes; the way their upturned mouths resemble smiles (not to mention their ability to stroll with majestic languor through harsh deserts). No camel has ever spat at me or growled or kicked or tried to bite me. They’ve been affable; good-natured.

So when I heard at some point about the huge camel fair that’s held every year in Rajasthan, I wanted to go. This wacky craving eventually bordered on obsession; it shaped our whole itinerary. I started with the camel-fair dates (mid-November this year) and built the rest of the trip around them, and I expected our time in Pushkar to stand out as one of the highest highlights.

I’ll have to wait until we leave India to judge what the actual highlights were. But I doubt I’ll ever forget the last three and a half days.

For one thing, Steve and I broke our longstanding habit of avoiding what we’ve condescendingly referred to as “the bubble.” By that we mean 5-star preserves where you can feel you’ve never left upper-crust Cleveland or Club Med. “What’s the point of traveling,” we have sneered, “if it feels just like home?” In Pushkar, our hotel was only $55 a night (including breakfast), but it was large and new and floored with gleaming marble, inside and out on the patio overlooking the pristine pool. It was also located far enough outside the town center that we never once heard a blaring bike or car horn. Every afternoon, after walking 5 to 10 miles through the dusty fairgrounds and jam-packed byways, we would return and sit outside in the shade to write or read or meditate. This was surprisingly soothing.

Part of what makes Pushkar so chaotic during the camel fair is that it coincides with an annual Hindu extravaganza. A few days after the camel-trading begins, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims converge on what’s said to be the holiest lake in India, at the heart of the town.The devotees trickle in over a ten-day period, and they revel not only in the religious activities (praying, visiting various temples, smashing coconuts, launching lighted candles into the lake waters, etc.) but also shopping and enjoying Indian-style tourist attractions. They ride on camels or in carts pulled by them.They photograph snake charmers.They ogle little girls walking on tightropes…or monkeys dressed up in little outfits.We spent hours wandering among the pilgrims. But I’d come for camels, not religious fanatics, so early on our first full day, we set out in the morning chill to find the hump-backed giants. (By noon, temperatures in Pushkar always climbed to the mid- to high-80s, but they plunged every night.) In the open grounds beyond the Brahma Temple, we found more camels assembled than I’ll ever see again in my life:thousands of them, most staked together in small groups or being groomed by their owners.

For the fair, some of the camel-herders shave designs into the animals’ coats, such as these:The backward swastika has nothing to do with Nazis. It’s an ancient Hindu symbol. Herders paint their animals in various ways to jazz them up.From the humans’ body language, we sometimes identified negotiations in progress. From the camels’, it appeared that some were bored…But some were curious.Overwall the scene felt surprisingly low-key, and we returned on our final day to see if the pace had accelerated.

On Friday morning the central thoroughfare leading to the camel grounds was indeed more crowded. Through the crush of fair-goers, one of the stalls lining the way caught my eye. It had camel-related products: soap made from their milk, scarves and rugs woven from their hair, notebooks composed of paper made from their excrement. I looked over the wares, and a portly guy behind the table surprised me by not haranguing me to buy something. Instead he started talking about the existential crisis confronting India’s camels and their herders.

Just a few years ago, he declared, five times the current number of camels converged on the Pushkar fair, he said. Although an NGO called Camel Charisma (a sponsor of the booth) had been working for more than 20 years ago on issues to help the herders, the current Indian government cared nothing about the animals, he charged. Powerful interests had confiscated a large part of the fairgrounds to build hotels; helipads had been built where only recently camels had grazed. We had noted some signs of encroaching development.A talk blonde older woman in the back of the booth joined our conversation. She was a German anthropologist named Ilse Kohler-Rollefson who’d spent 20 years living among the camel nomads (and almost as amazingly, had lived for several years in San Diego and taught at San Diego State). She and her colleague explained that the NGO had helped start the first camel dairy in India. They were also lobbying for protection of traditional grazing grounds. The aim was to find ways for the herders to continue earning enough to survive.

There would be a demonstration that afternoon, the two told us. Herders would be marching to the local government headquarters to voice their grievances. Steve and I promised to return.

We were back at the booth a minute of two before 1 pm, the putative starting time, but for some reason, the demonstrators had already marched and were returning to their animals, their banners rolled up. We ran into Ilse too as she was buying an ice cream bar, and she told us that someone had delivered a rousing speech at the municipal center.

All those months ago, when I was planning our trip, I also got inaccurate information about what would be happening each day at the fair. So Steve and I missed several events I would have loved to have seen — competitions in camel decoration and camel dancing and turban-tying and (human) mustache cultivation. I’m sorry, too, that we missed going to the fair a few years ago, when five times the number of camels covered the hillsides. I hope the camel-defenders’ numbers grow, and the camels don’t disappear from the Rajasthani landscape, but I’ll probably miss witnessing the conclusion to that drama too. A bittersweet lesson I’ve learned more than once while traveling is that you can only photograph what’s in front of you when you’re there. Sometimes the best stuff happened yesterday. Or is just outside the frame.

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.