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.

They call these hills?

Based on books I can no longer remember, I had a mental picture of the Indian “hill stations,” towns like Simla and Darjeeling in the Himalayan foothills where 18th-century Brits planted tea and officers of the Raj escaped the staggering summer heat of the lowlands. In my mind, these towns were cool and pleasant places, set in rolling hills that might look a bit like Kentucky. I wanted to get a taste of them. Now, having just spent three days in Darjeeling, I can report that my picture was so wrong. I’d forgotten that the foothills of the Himalayas make the Appalachians look like sand dunes. We have no mountains in North America like this.

Three years ago, Steve and I spent some time in Bhutan. That’s what the Indian hill country constantly reminded me of. There are differences, of course. Bhutan is a clean and orderly little kingdom, while the far northern reaches of India, so near to Bhutan and Nepal as the crow flies, are suffocating in smog, carpeted by garbage, deafened by incessant, ubiquitous car-honking. We found all that in Darjeeling. Yet with daytime highs in the low-60s and temperatures plunging to the 40s at night, clinging to vertiginous emerald mountainsides, the “hill” towns felt almost unimaginably different from Kolkata or the Sundarbans. Or Kentucky.

One thing our eco village in the Sundarbans and Darjeeling have in common is that neither are easy to reach. Darjeeling has no airport, and no normal train travels to it. Most tourists get there riding in cars or vans or jeeps. The other alternative is what people call the “toy train,” aka the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway. Built in 1880 and designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999, our Lonely Planet guidebook included it among the area’s highlights. Steve and I don’t consider ourselves rail fanatics, but we have a soft spot for trains. So even though we knew it supposedly took 7 hours to cover 53 miles, we booked tickets.

We began to suspect this was a mistake shortly after getting to the New Jalpaiguri train station, a madhouse of confusing activity. After some difficulty, we found our way to the unmistakable toy train track; it’s only two feet wide. But at 8 am, we found no sign of the train itself, scheduled to leave at 8:30.There was no sign of it at 8:30 or 9. Only about 9:10 did this contraption — call it an older brother of the kiddy train that operates next to the San Diego Zoo — chug into the station.Pandemonium ensued as befuddled passengers (us chief among them) tried to figure out where to sit. Rail attendants seemed to be non-existent. But someone finally directed us to places in the “First Class” car, and around 9:30, we were off.By the time we departed, every seat was full.

We were off for about 10 minutes, then we stopped for a while in the middle of a field. When we started up again, we traveled for only 20 minutes, then stopped again under an underpass. We sat there for almost an hour. By the time we reached our first scheduled stop, we were almost two hours behind schedule. It didn’t get much better.

I will allow that the toy train has a few things going for it. After a few hours, we were chugging through tea plantations…… then beautiful green forests filled with enormous trees or moving along the edge of jaw-dropping precipices.The train has big windows you can open wide, so at times it felt like we were hiking through those landscapes. It’s an engineering marvel, climbing from under 500 feet above sea level to more than 7000 in less than 50 miles. To accomplish this, it does some fancy tricks that include occasionally backing up and switching onto another track on a higher level. It also cuts across the paved (auto) road often, which is entertaining.But by 3:30, our scheduled arrival time, when we were clearly hours from Darjeeling, stuck in a jolting hell overseen by workers who clearly did not care a whit what time got there, with only a hole in a tiny compartment to pee in, and only potato chips for lunch, we were pretty miserable.

We finally arrived three hours late, after more than 9 hours of torture, finally reached our hotel, and I can tell you: a good dinner and a shower and a comfy bed quickly erases the memory of a difficult transit. Over the next two days, I even came to appreciate Darjeeling. It was touristy (jammed with Indians gathered in the town for yet another holiday). They were in high spirits. They dressed up in traditional costumes for photo opportunities… They captured images of their kids enjoying pony rides. They shopped for pashminas and visited the ancient Buddhist temple that adjoined our hotel.Some of them did what we did the second day: hiked about a mile to the excellent local zoo (specializing in Himalayan animals). The zoo grounds also contain the marvelous Himalayan Mountaineering Institute.It trains aspiring peak-conquerers and also venerates the memory of past heroes, like Tenzin Norgay, who guided Sir Edmund Hillary to the first conquest of Mt. Everest.The museum displays some of the great sherpa’s gear from that historic climb.

It also helped that we were staying in a living museum — the sort of place I never normally would seek out. Built in the 1840s as a boarding house for young British officers, the Windamere Hotel, as it’s known today, later catered to the cream of British tea-planter society.Happily, we were upgraded to a suite, the very one in which a young American student of Asia named Hope Cooke was staying in 1959 when she met and fell in love with the Prince of Sikkim, later marrying him and becoming queen.All the facilities today are a bit creaky, but where else have I ever been served five-course meals by white-gloved waters (and coffee kept warm under a knitted cozy)…The Windamere’s dining room

… or warmed in the evening with a wood fire and genuine hot-water bottles? It felt like time travel, and it was a lot less rigorous than all those hours in locomotive hell.

My battle plan — Part 2

After Steve and I returned from the Sundarbans Friday night, we carried out the last step in the complex preparations we’ve undertaken to keep us healthy while we’re here in India. I detailed most of these in an earlier post.

The last step began in Seoul, site of the International Travel clinic I discovered online and where I’d made an appointment. It was tricky to find. We had to call them from the street and ask for directions.

Up on the fifth floor, we both had to fill out lengthy medical history forms……and have our height, weight, temperature, and blood pressure checked. Then we were ushered in to see the clinic’s owner, Dr. Sooyoung Kim, an urbane guy dressed in jeans and a casual longsleeve shirt who spoke English like an American. We chatted with him about what we wanted (vaccinations against Japanese encephalitis (for me) and cholera (both of us). He approved our plan and sent us off for processing by his efficient nurse.

The shot ($63 in Seoul versus the $868 it would have cost in San Diego) was painless. The Dukoral (approved by the World Health Organization for preventing cholera and traveler’s diarrhea, but unavailable in the US) sounded like it would be easy to take.

We didn’t realize there was a little problem until later that evening, when we went to take the first of the two required doses. The nurse had included an ice pack in the bag containing the boxes of vaccine ingredients, and that had chilled everything pretty well. (Taking the Dukoral required mixing a packet of fizzy stuff with water, then adding the liquid contents of a little vial.)But we wouldn’t be able to take the second dose for another week. And during that time, we had to travel to Kolkata via Singapore.

We did our best to keep those babies frosty: refroze the freezer pack the night before our journey and slipped the package through security in my carry-on backpack.

By the time we got to Singapore, the ice had thawed, but we filled up a plastic bag with ice cubes from the Priority Pass lounge. As we were heading to our gate, I noticed to my horror that we had to go through another security check. Confident that the bag of ice cubes wouldn’t make it through and might draw attention to the suspicious little vials, I ditched the ice and carried the vials in my liquids bag. They weren’t very cold by the time we reached our hotel in Kolkata. But our room there had a nice little refrigerator, where the Dukoral remained until we could polish it off.It surely got warmer than 2 to 8 degrees Celsius (what I think was the recommended temperature range) for several hours. I don’t know what difference that makes. If we don’t get cholera or traveler’s diarrhea, I don’t know if the Dukoral will deserve the credit. But I’d sure like to think it did.

No country for old gringos

I have another entry for my short list of the Worst Places in the World to Live. It only includes places where I’ve actually slept. (Otherwise it would be longer.) Up to now it has included two locations: the Tibetan plateau and the altiplano of Peru and Bolivia, both cursed with oxygen-poor altitudes, bad food, cold and wind and skin-cracking dryness. Joining their company now in my sour estimation is the Sundarbans, where Steve and I journeyed last Thursday.We didn’t go there to suffer. Rather, we wanted to see one of the geographic wonders of the world. The Sundarbans is the enormous estuary where some of India’s biggest rivers — the Ganges, the Brahmaputra, and others — split into dozens of branches and flow into the Bay of Bengal. The area includes both an Indian and a Bangladeshi section. What grows there, mainly, are mangroves, the shrub which somehow learned to suck up seawater and excrete the salt. The Sundarbans mangrove forest is the biggest on earth. More than 80 species grow so densely you can’t see more then a few feet into them, and they shoot up stick-like “air roots” that can impale anything that steps on them. Despite that, a number of creatures survive in this harsh environment, the most famous being the Royal Bengal tiger.

On the Indian side, at least 100 of the big cats prowl an area a little smaller than San Diego County. Except for mothers and their cubs, they live alone, hunting spotted deer and wild boar and more than a few humans. Around 70 people perish in their jaws every year, we were told, mostly luckless fishermen and honey-collectors from the local villages. Companies that take tourists here play up this creepy record.

Steve and I and an eccentric old Israeli guy were the only non-Indians in our excursion group. I found the three-hour ride from Kolkata to the end of the highway fascinating, if terrifying, as we avoided by inches head-on collisions with oncoming buses, trucks, cars, bulldozers, motorcycles, bicyclists, dogs, meandering cows, pedestrians, motorcycle-powered carts loaded with goods and humans, and flocks of lambs.

The road wasn’t horrible. We slowed more often for speed bumps than potholes. But the bouncy, uneven ride, the constant swerving and accelerating, the incessant horn-blowing wearied me.

After the van ride, we had to trudge in blistering heat through a couple of villages and take two ferries before arriving at the island “eco-village” created by our outfitter (Backpackers de Sundarbans).The village may be poor and backward, but the Indian ladies still dress sharply.

As mud-walled cabins go, ours wasn’t bad. It had lots of hooks on which to hang things and a private marble-floored bathroom. There was electricity to charge our phones, and if the lights were weak, the ceiling fan whirled vigorously, alleviating the heat and humidity.

That afternoon we hiked through the eco-village……where you can find unexpected beauty.

Then we clambered into oversized canoes for a sunset paddle into one of the narrow channels through the mangroves.

I felt serene, until one of the Indian civil engineers emitted a piercing shriek. I look in the direction where she was staring, petrified, and yelped too. Tarantulas appeared to be climbing up the tree trunks, just inches away from our vessel.

When I learned they were tree-climbing crabs, not giant spiders, that calmed me, but the young Indian woman and one of her colleagues generated lots of hilarity with their unrestrained crabophobia. It was a highlight of the day along with our foray after dinner to the village moonshiner to taste his rice wine. (Revolting, with strong sour buttermilk notes.)

I barely slept that night. Our bed was rock hard, and roosters crowed long before dawn. I’d found a three-inch-wide spider (no crab this time) in our bathroom, and when a staff member came to relocate it, it had disappeared.

Where DID he go?

Although our bed had a decent mosquito net, I kept thinking of the tree vipers and other extravagantly venomous snakes that call the Sundarbans home. The next day brought more physical hardship after we all boarded a much bigger motorboat, chugged to the tiger reserve office to get permission to enter, and picked up another guide. Parts of our river rambles reminded Steve and me of our recent Amazon River adventure. But whereas the skies there enthralled us, the murky Indian air reminded us of Los Angeles in the 50s. Before noon everything I was wearing was soaked with sweat. Mangroves may be interesting, but their charm fades when they’re the only thing to look at for hour after hour.

Animal spottings jolted us awake, though. These included:

Indian spotted deer grazing near the riverbanks…

A 5-foot-long monitor lizard enjoying the sun.

Macaques. We watched this group chase the one guy into the water. They seemed to be mad at him.

This is a yellow fiddler crab. Don’t you love his eyes?

Most menacing was this mature crocodile. Alligators also ply these waters, but it’s the crocs who are murderous, taking down even tigers when they’re swimming from island to island.

Sadly, but not unexpectedly, we didn’t see any tigers. We did spot recent tracks, and from them it was unmistakable the fiercesome man-eaters weren’t far away.

Because of the heat and snakes and air pollution and tigers and disease-laden mosquitoes and inhospitable mangroves and more, I will never move to the tiger’s neighborhood, nor likely ever return. But on balance, we were happy to visit.