Dawn - Sometimes An Ultrarunner

Dawn - Sometimes An Ultrarunner

February 4, 2009

India (Around the World Trip)

Feb 4 - 5 - Kolkata (Calcutta)

India did not get off to a very auspicious start. After an 11:30 p.m. flight from Bangkok, we arrived in Kolkata at 1 in the morning, which admittedly is not a good time to arrive in any city. The airport looked like some sort of run-down old military building, all drab cement walls and dust in the corners. In the customs line we hooked up with a bald lady from NY who didn't want to travel alone at night. For some reason they X-rayed our hand luggage before they let us out of the airport. We had thought to walk to a hotel, but it was pretty dark, so a taxi driver convinced us to let him find us a hotel. Bad idea. He asked us how much we wanted to pay, and we concluded later that regardless of what we would have said, he still would have gone to the same hotel, just the price would have changed. Anyway, his headlights stopped working several blocks before we stopped, and we parked in the dark outside a dark street, and he banged on the door until lights came one, and we found two rooms for what was left of the night. All we wanted to do was sleep and leave again, so we really didn't look at the room too closely, and nothing around us was open anyway, but after moving in, we found the room was very horrible even by our already lowered standards. The bed was nothing more than a very thin mattress on a board covered by a smelly sheet. The blankets looked like they had been used to scrub the floor and then not washed for years afterward, and when I looked in the sink, I swear it was splattered with dried blood drops. I put in earplugs because the fan didn't have any speed but loud, covered my dirty pillow with my jacket, and used my sarong for a blanket. Rob thought the sheet smelled and ended up sleeping right on the mattress. It was a long night, and we didn't sleep much.

In the morning we gratefully left the hotel and caught a taxi for the city center, which was a long ride into town for just a couple of dollars. We finally parted ways with the bald lady and after a little searching, found a creaky old house with a couple of rooms for rent. Our had high ceilings and clean smelling blankets, and right after we got the room, a barefoot old man came in and hand-mopped the floors and bathroom with a wash-cloth. After crashing for a couple more hours, we wandered out into the chaos that makes up the old city in Kolkata, and we were immediately accosted by taxi touts, beggars, salesmen, and anyone else that wanted to sell something. We walked away from everyone and explored the area. Our hotel was in the "backpacker" tourist section, but to compare it to Th Khao San Road in Bangkok, where we had just left, would be to compare a local carnival to Disneyland. There was barely another tourist in sight, and a few rundown tourist shops hawked train tickets and dismal internet stations, but on the whole it just looked like another run-down city street. We checked out our map and walked to the new market close to us. Several men dressed all in white attached themselves to us as soon as we acted interested in any of the wares, trying to get us to come to their stores where they could earn a commission. The market was nothing more than a tourist trap (minus many tourists), selling bright scarves and other Indian clothing, with extremely high-pressured sales pitches. At one point we had four of the men following us around, hoping that we would buy something and that a portion of the earnings would go to them as a commission. We escaped after buying a few scarves from a shop that really wanted us to purchase 10 or 20.

While traffic in most of SE Asia could only be described as controlled chaos, it paled in comparison to what we saw here. In Cambodia, although there were no traffic lights, there was also no road rage; everyone just worked their way out into traffic until they created a gap, a sort of synchronized dance where everyone eventually merited their chance to cross the road and no one ever got mad at being cut off, because they would do it themselves the next time. Even pedestrians just weaved their way through the tuk-tuks and scooters, mostly safely. Here in Kolcata, there were a few traffic lights, and fewer rules. In between controlled intersections, 6 lanes of traffic tried to drive in about 3, and that's not counting the motorcycles and bicycles. Most taxis were either missing their mirrors or had them pulled in, and pedestrians ran when crossing any street, in fear of their lives. On taxi rides, I could usually reach out of my window and touch cars on either side of us, and the constant blare of horns tooting a warning almost deafened us.

And that doesn't even count the unusual conveyances working their way through traffic. In SE Asia we saw millions of scooters, here there was almost none, and yellow taxis took over the roads en masse. But there seemed to be a challenge at large to see who could carry the most goods down the street using just their heads... Or failing that, on the back of a tricycle cart, so loaded down that someone from behind had to push to keep it going at all. Besides the taxis, there were plenty of auto rickshaws (similar to Thai tuk-tuks), but even more tricycle taxis, most of them old, dirty and rickety, with a sparse sunshade over head for the passengers but not the poor pedal-er.

But the most extreme form of conveyance we have ever seen had to be the men pulling high two-wheel carriages, barefoot, under their own power. To the man, they were old, dirty, and moved no faster than a normal walk, yet people were riding in these carefully balanced carriages, to what reason we're still not sure. It is said that in the wet season, these men and their carts are the only things that can cross flooded streets, so maybe the locals use them when it's dry, just to keep them in business for the floods. I don't know.

The next morning, we set off to explore the city, with not a little trepidation. Everything in sight was coated with dust, and even now when I think of this city, the overwhelming color of orange dirt and the smell of urine is what comes to mind. I wanted to see a famous local buiding, so we walked south through an large open area filled with dead grass, grazing goats, and not a little trash, as a haze of dust and pollution seemed to hang over the whole city. In our taxi ride from the airport, and all subsequent travels within the limits, we never saw anything that looked at all modern, yet our guidebook puts the population of Kolkata at over 13 million, which makes it bigger than Delhi. Many of the apartment buildings seem to be half-finished, yet fully-occupied, with still-gaping holes for windows and doors, and even the cement blocks faded into an orangy glaze of dust.

The white spires of Victoria Monument grew bigger in the distance. At the entrance I stopped to buy a bottle of water, and for about 20 cents was given the dirtiest, oldest bottle of sealed water that I've ever seen. After cracking the seal, and taking a few sips, we concluded that it had probably been used, refilled, and carefully (and illegally) resealed. We dumped it out, crushed the bottle to prevent it being used again, and resolved to only drink soda from iffy street vendors. At least it had originally been a water bottle...later on, I saw a woman selling bottles of water of varying sizes, several still with the "Pepsi" soda label still attached.

The building and gardens themselves seemed to be a slight reprieve from the rest of the city, and we purchased tickets to walk around it. Our guidebook calls it the monument a cross between the Taj Mahal and the US Capitol building, and indeed it was beautiful when reflected in the still water of a garden lake. The monument seemed to us a fading reminder of the British reign over India, which ended in 1947, and it was hard for us to understand how the uptight Brits ever got along in this society.

Leaving the monument and entering the city proper was an assault on all the senses. Crowds of people filled the sidewalks and streets to overflowing and dodged horn-blowing taxi drivers. The paved streets sometimes degenerated into bumpy dirt paths, and the nearest trash pile was never more than a few feet away, if not under your feet. Water gushed freely at times from pipes along the curbs, and men could often be found near them, stripped down to their boxer shorts (or loinclothes as the case may be), lathered up from head to toe and taking a shower. Vendors along the sidewalks sold flatbreads and dipping sauce in tin plates, which got washed in the same place as the soapy bathers. I swear I saw a beggar stopped at a puddle by the road, lapping up drinks of water with his cupped hand. And lingering in the dusty air was always the stench of urine, rising from every handy wall where men would freely relieve themselves. Coping with all of this might have seemed impossible, except that for the most part we were ignored outside of the tourist areas...traffic flowed around us as if we didn't exist, and Rob had a grand time snapping shots of the locals. Given the amount of time-worn, sun-drenched faces, it appeared at times as if all of them were canidates for the front page of a National Geographic issue, which also made many of them seem like potential beggars. Of course, a fair amount of them really were beggars, but if a businessman with a wild face held out his hand, I wouldn't have been able to tell the difference.

Most of the crowd seemed to be men, but here and there was always a bright flash of fabric. The women here are almost exclusively dressed in either two kinds of clothing, both of them bright colored and perfectly matching. The first is a sort of long shirt (down to the knees and slit on the sides) worn over a pair of pants or leggings with a scarf around the neck. It seems to be a rule that the pants and the scarf either match closely or are actually made of the same material. But more common is the saree, which at first glance appears to be a dress and a matching scarf. In reality, the women are wearing a tight upper bodice and a pair of pants, and over it all they wrap a 1 meter by 10 meter piece of fabric around their waist and then throw it over their head and shoulders. It appeared to be pretty simple to put on, until I actually saw a couple of women dressing themselves after bathing in a river. It was a complicated system of hand-pleating to get the ungainly length of cloth wrapped tightly and secured around their waists, and then more pleats to get it to fall properly over their shoulder, until in the end it looked like they had just wrapped it around a couple of times and thrown it over their shoulder. There are tons of saree shops here, as you might imagine, with salesmen that try to convince me that I need one, but it beats me what I would really do with a 1 x 10 meter piece of filmy fabric once I leave here. The sarees are extremely beautiful, just not very practical for me; as you can imagine, with my button-up shirt and floppy hat, I fit in about as well here as a zebra in a goat-pen.

When we couldn't handle the dirt of Kolcata any longer (ok, after one day), we booked an overnight train ride to our next destination. After a harrowing taxi ride crossing the busiest river bridge in the entire world (my estimation was about 5000 people walking and riding across it at one time), we ended up at a bustling train station. In our eyes, there were so many thousands of people hurrying to their trains, it looked like a movie played in fast-forward, or like a bunch of ants searching for bread. We had reserved upper berths in the 2nd class train, just to see what it would be like, and the overnight tickets cost us less than an average night here in a hotel. We found out why when we boarded our car to find 9 berths in 3 levels crammed into a space only slightly bigger than a king-size bed. The middle berths were folded down to make seats on the lower berth, and although we entered an empty train, it filled up quickly, to the point that we wondered what was going on. We had purchased what we thought were designated seats, and even if 9 people made the section really crowded, about 15 made it a cattle-train. I climbed up and squeezed myself into the tiny upper berth, and smirked down at Rob, who was pinched between a bunch of locals, none of whom seemed inclined to follow my lead and sit in the empty upper berths. The crush continued until our first stop, when most of the free-loaders got off and about 9 people remained. After a few hours of confusion, a man finally came through and sorted out the seating arrangements for sleeping. We luckily had the two upper births, and although they were shorter than we were, and less than 2 feet below the roof, it was still a better ride than a crowded bus, and with my head pillowed on my backpack, I actually slept a little. The middle berths were folded out as well, and even the lights went off, leaving us to rock ourselves to sleep, punctured by frequent stops and the cries of the hot tea vendor.

February 6 - 8 - Bodhegaya

It was still dark when we stepped off the train and took a long rick-shaw ride from Gaya to Bodhegaya. Only two hotels in the small town were open so early, and we checked into one of them and went back to sleep, since Rob claimed he hadn't gotten a wink on the train. When we woke up and looked out our window, we saw in the daylight what had been obscured this morning in the dark. Namely, that our hotel balcony looked over a couple of abandoned properties bordered by low brick walls, filled with garbage. Behind that was sort of a disgusting black pool of water seeping out from the village, but it was really supposed to be a rice field. Right away, Rob noticed that kids would climb the property walls, pull down their pants, and proceed to go #2 in plain sight of anyone walking down the street. This fascinated Rob for some reason, not sure why, and from his observations, he noticed many, many people walking out into the garbage, onto the wall, or out into the rice fields to relieve themselves. Even when we were openly standing on our balcony it would happen..and we had to conclude that the field was the bathroom, and that the village houses didn't have any bathrooms. Yet the kids would walk through the cess pool of black water, and sometimes use it to clean themselves up afterward. It was exceedingly gross...we moved hotels the next day, and I can't wait to get out of this town. To think that this is where Buddha achieved nirvana after 9 lives worth of attempting it 2552 years ago.

But of course, this town is famous as the place of Buddha's enlightenment, and devout Buddhists come here from Tibet, Thailand, and the rest of the world to sit under the same tree (ok, maybe a descendant of the tree) as Buddha once did. Now there is a huge pagoda marking the spot, and to get close to it we had to remove our shoes and walk barefoot on the stone floors down to the tree. A sign asked for complete silence, but several tourists were making a rowdy game out of collecting every leaf that fell from the famous tree, almost colliding with monks meditating nearby.

You might notice that in the pictures of India are a fair number that include cows and water buffalos. It is considered a sin to eat beef in most of this country, and I have yet to see it on any menu. The sacred cows seem to have the run of the whole country, and roam freely through the cities; munching on garbage, sleeping in the middle of intersections, holding up traffic, and otherwise walking slowly down the alleyways. They do provide a lot of milk, so I guess that eventually each day the animals find their way back to their "home", which might just be a room in someone's house.

While I was hiding in my room with a good book in Bodhegaya, Rob went out walking into the village and was "found" by one of the younger boys that excessively seem to be around the temples asking for a "donation" to buy them a football or other sports item. Instead of giving in to the smooth-talking beggar, Rob followed him home to meet his family, and ended up having a interesting cultural experience with the boy as an interpreter. Many of the pictures of kids and women come from Rob's afternoon there, and he helped carry loads of dried cow dung and saw the cow's room inside their house. He said it was easy to donate some money after seeing and interacting with the family, but that the boy's whining plea for additional funds while following him back from their house was a bit too much.

Our favorite part of Bodhegaya was probably leaving it...Rob called the rick-shaw ride back to the train station the most exhilarating half-hour of his entire life. Our driver (and every other driver out there on the road) was utterly reckless; swerving around donkey carts piled with hay, barely scraping back into the correct lane to avoid a truck, squeezing between bicycles, and dodging around cows. I sat in the back fearing for my very existence, and Rob tried but failed to wholly capture the craziness with his lens.

February 9 - 13 - Varanasi and the ghats along the holy Ganges River

Our train was way late and it was very dark by the time we arrived at the station. Given the choice of a taxi or a rickshaw, we chose to again risk our lives in the smaller conveyance. It was about 15 miles to Varanasi, so we had an hour ride into town, and then we descended back into a chaos of narrow, bumpy streets and crowded alleyways before arriving at Assi Ghat. During our train ride, I had come down with a bad head cold and fever, so I spent the next few days hiding in my hotel room, while Rob found a whole world waiting for his camera.

The city of Varanasi is most famous for a series of cement stairs, called ghats, leading down to the holy Ganges river. Millions of people come here on pilgrimages here every year to bathe in the river, do their laundry, or just hang out; and any day of the year it is quite a scene from dawn to dusk. The ghats stretch for several kilometers along the water front, and behind them is the old city. The old-city streets above the river wall are actually too small for anything but motorcycles to get down them, but have a lively traffic of people, cows, honking motorcycles, and bicycles that will willingly run over your feet if you don't hop away quick enough. I am fortunate to still have all 10 toes attached.

Well, when I finally felt up to a walk along the holy polluted Ganges river, it dished up plenty of wacky things which I will elaborate on below, but which you should only read if you have a strong stomach. A lot of India uses cow poop for burning for their cooking fires, which might sound familiar...out in the old west I'm sure they did the same thing. But here the cows roam the streets, so people go around after them and collect up their fragrant poo. I guess they bring it all to places in the sun where it can dry...but first it needs to be formed back into pies. I had noticed that a lot of the ones we saw looked like they had a hand-print on them from being slapped on the wall, and then we saw the process in action. Seriously, we saw this old spindly dude with both hands buried in a basket of shit, whereupon he removed a small pat of it and worked it like it was a pie dough, before placing it to dry on the cement (with a handprint). Heck of a living. After we saw the man in action, we started noticing hand-printed pies stuck to walls and buildings literally all over town.

Two of the ghats along the river have been designated as "burning" ghats, as in cremation. This is considered a very holy place to be cremated according to the Hindu religion, and the burning goes on 24 hours a day, probably every day of the year. First the body is wrapped in shiny flame-colored robes and strings of orange flowers, and carried by outcasts on bamboo poles down to the water, where the body is ceremonially drenched in the Ganges river (this probably doesn't help the burning process, but tradition is tradition). Then the robes and flowers are removed, the flowers are given to hungry cows, and the body is left in a single drenched white sheet, sometimes with the head uncovered. Depending on how much money has been paid, the person is placed on a stack of wood weighing either 200 or 300 kilos, and a few more logs on laid on top of the body to aid in the burning process. The oldest son of the family then leaves to get his head shaved (except for a small topknot), and when he comes back, he circles the bower five times with a bundle of burning straw, then lights the fire. I have yet to see a woman near the place (except for tourists), but surrounding the fire are all the men of the family, who help spread the fire along the bottom of the wood stack and make sure it burns properly. Supposedly the wood they use is specifically because it removes all scents of burning fresh, and in truth, we never smelled anything except very hot, ashy air. As we stopped by the largest of the burning ghats, we counted 10 bodies actively burning, with another 8 wrapped in shiny robes and waiting for their turn. Some of the pyres were so close together that the people had trouble circling them to light them because others were already hot and flaming. As we watched one particular cremation (whose relatives must have been stingy with money for wood), the feet stuck out over the edge of the wood, burned off at the knees, and fell to the ground, where they were flipped back into the fire with a long stick. Nearby at the river's edge, a man was diligently bathing and doing his laundry in the water.

The town of Varanasi is also considered a good place to die (kicking the bucket here supposedly ends the cycle of life and death), and many older folks come here to stay when they think their time is drawing near. Behind the burning ghats are apartments where you can stay and wait to die, although looking out over your cremation site doesn't seem very appealing. According to a friendly local, one man has been waiting here for 35 years. Ouch.

A funereal pyre on the Ganges
 Now that I have set the scene at the river, it is time to illustrate just how odd this scene really is. Between burning bodies, pooing cows, rampant pollution, and raw sewage entering the river, the Ganges is one of the worst polluted rivers in the world. The acceptable limit for the count of fecal coliform bacteria in water is supposed to be under 500, and at one point the Ganges river water measured a count of about 1.5 million, making the water completely septic and empty of the dissolved oxygen needed to support life. There's no fish in the river. Yet, millions of people consider bathing in the Ganges to be a holy experience, and millions others come here often to do their laundry. On the first day that Rob walked along the ghats, it was a festival day, and the steps were completely crowded with holiday bathers. In their defense, the water doesn't necessarily look gross, if you can see beyond the trash on the bottom...it isn't muddy like the Mississippi and in fact is slightly clear and greenish. But bordering the water just a few steps up from the river is the walkway along the city walls, and since any wall in India seems to be fair game for humans to use as a bathroom for #1 and #2, the only place for all that waste to go is back down to the water. It all seems really gross, but maybe the people don't have a choice of places to do their laundry and bathe, maybe the holiness washes out the pollution for the true believers, or maybe they just don't care.

The electricity seems to go out at least several times a day, in every town we've been in so far, and all over town, loud generators kick on to fill the gaps. This was especially frightening in the overcrowded, windowless waiting room at the Varanasi airport, where every plane seemed to be delayed for some reason, ours for about 4 hours. In the waiting room was a elaborate sign telling us that we should never accept bribes, giving many reasons for not doing so. In a couple other walls around the airport were simple white sheets of computer paper tacked on the wall with just the printed words, "You are being watched", but failing to clarify who fell under the definition of "you". When the plane did show up, I think they tried to save fuel by not ever using the airconditioning system, and we resoved never to fly with SpiceJet Airlines ever again.

February 14 - 16, 18 - Delhi

Fresh cow poop formed into patties to dry for cooking fuel.  What a job.
Entering our fifth city in a row in the dark felt almost normal by now, but for a second here and there, India's capitol (at least at midnight) looked almost like a normal city. Well, until we reached our street and descended back into rutted narrow dirty alleyways looking for a hotel. Still, it had a slightly cleaner air to it compared to what we had just left. Then, the next morning, we bumped into a "newly arrived in India" tourist looking for a hotel room, and he was wild-eyed with the craziness and called Delhi the dirtiest place he had ever been. We tried to keep a straight face and a serious tone, and recommended that he should really visit Varanasi and then perhaps Calcutta.

By now in our travels we have stayed in about 30 different hotel rooms, so many that I can't remember them all, in varying states of cleanliness and niceness. I hope none of our future ones will be as bad as that first night in Kolkata. Our guidebooks try to represent them honestly, and the budget reviews from here are suffiently entertaining to be considered light reading during plane delays at the airport. They contain descriptions such as "dismal but nice" or "closet-sized rooms but at least there is hot water" and my favorite "rooms have TV's but the whole place is in desperate need of a bathroom blitz".

Within 5 minutes of walking around in Delhi the next morning, we saw a camel, elephant, cow, donkey, and horse; all pulling or carrying a load down the bustling streets. Veering around the animals with loud honks were numerous yellow and green auto rick-shaws, diesel-belching buses, and taxis leaning on their horns. Filling the edges of the road were thousands of pedestrians (what sidewalks?), and somehow the bicycle rick-shaws avoided overturning during their constant pedal-powered weaving. I checked my toes often...yup, still have all 10 of them. Walking around the city seemed more like playing a very defensive game of basketball than taking a stroll through a park, and it took quite a bit of continuing patience to constantly weave through the madness. When we got a bit tired of only making sideways progress in the crush of humanity, we hired a bicycle rickshaw to take us somewhere, anywhere. He pedaled and braked furiously, not going much faster than we could normally walk, but at least we weren't doing the dodging.

One thing that we have seen over and over through all the cities so far is an unfathomable number of people sleeping in and alongside the streets. It appears as it they are walking along, suddenly get tired of walking along, curl up on the ground, and pull a dirty blanket over their heads. The Delhi train station was particularily crowded with sleeping people in the late evening, and we had to conclude that not all of them were actually waiting for trains.

Since the people don't eat beef, and usually not pork either out of respect for the muslim community, what's left could be just chicken, fish, and goat. But a good majority of the population actually seems to be vegetarian, and many restaurants proudly advertise this out front. The places that do serve meat do it sparingly...I have yet to see a plump chicken leg or a nice fish, and if mutton is on the menu somewhere, they always seem to be "out" of it. Even McDonald's has jumped on the bandwagon, and there is no BigMac to be found on their menus, much less a simple cheeseburger.

If you're asking yourself what is left after that, well so are we. In the extremely dirty conditions that we found in Kolkata and Bodhega, the street food would have seemed unappetising even if we had had appetites, but we really didn't. For the first 5 days in this country, we lived on one meal a day (can you say McDonalds and Domino's?), and even since then have only upped that a little. In Varanasi, I discovered the hotel restaurant made passable pizza, and ate that several days in a row.

Now I don't mean to do all the country's food a disservice...India is a very big Subcontinent, and the food varies widely from north to south. We eventually discovered that the small street restaurants make very good flat breads, used for dipping into the classic Thali meal, which you can see pictured. Almost all food is served on metal plates, sometimes divided, which hold usually 3 different foods, along with rice. Raw onions, carrots and parsnips sprinkled with curry powder provide a salad of sorts, and then there is a sort of spicy potato stew, and the last is either chickpeas or other types of beans cooked down into a thick soup. The local way of eating is just to dig in without any utensils, mixing in the rice, and then forking great handfuls into one's mouth with fingers and thumb. Invariably this leads to one's whole hand dripping with mashed bean soup, and doesn't seem to appealing, so we have many gotten by with a spoon or by using the flatbreads. The meal is a bit heavy on the starches, and on the whole it is edible, but not necessarily great. Since the yellow color and consistency of the soups always reminds me of cat food, I don't think I will go searching out Indian restaurants when I get home again. But, the best thing I can say is that everything is exceedingly cheap here...last night we ate at a small local place with only Thali on the menu, but it was "eat-full"...which we figured out later was all-you-can-eat. Anytime we emptied our bread plate or bean soup, another ladle was slopped on our plate from a big dipper and the bread replenished. The meal cost us 80 cents each, with another 20 cents for a soda, and they looked at us oddly when we added a tip to our payment in gratitude. For dessert or just an afternoon snack, they drink hot tea with lots of milk, and usually along with the bill comes a small bowl of the local breath-freshener. We stared at it curiously for a while before trying and discovering that it was tiny sugar chunks mixed with black-licorice (annis?) seeds.

The people here have seemed to reach a new level of inventiveness in terms of ways to fleece money from tourists. Once in a while on a rick-shaw ride, we will suddenly be stopped next to a man who will demand a "parking fee", although in reality we are going, not parking. Beggars abound, and use every tactic they can think of to look like they are going to die without a donation. Fake shoe cleaners roam the train stations, and when you are not looking, donate a spot of "poo" to your shoe, and then offer to clean it off for an exhorbant price (I laughed like crazy when Rob got caught by one of them and actually agreed to get his sandals cleaned!). At the Taj Mahal, well dressed men eagerly try to lead the tourists to a better spot to take photos, and then demanded to be paid for a location that every savvy photographer would easily find on their own. Smooth talking men fall beside you and ask the inevitable question "where you from", which marks the start of a conversation designed to lead you to a "cheaper shop", in an attempt to gain their commission.

Additionally, these leeches seem to have no "off" button...they stick to your side and keep talking no matter how many times we say "no, thanks", or "please go away" or "I don't want to buy any postcards, thanks". In fact, it's become sort of a game to see what will work to shake off the continual offers of "help". I usually just ignore them, although that seems pretty mean, because I've figured out that smiling, making eye contact, or responding in any way is an invitation for them to keep talking. Rob has gotten quite rude at times, usually when we have been approached 20 times in five minutes and our patience is wearing thin, but even rudeness doesn't always work.

India is cheap enough that these scams, threats, and beggars don't risk any true damage to our pocketbook. I always keep a few 10 Rupee bills (about 20 cents) in my pocket to hand out for alms and just to keep the peace, but I could go through more of them than I could find in just an hour or two if I wasn't careful. There are just too many destitutes here, and it's honestly very sad.
Having said all that I must in all honesty say that the majority of the people here are kindess itself, very friendly, and will go out of their way to help lost, overburdended,confused tourists. It's the cynic in me that has to add that most the time such friendliness is in the direct hope that money will coming flying out of your pocket in their direction, or perhaps because it already has. Once the people have accomplished their goals, i.e. you are eating at their restaurant, staying at their hotel, riding in their rickshaw, or buying their scarves, you could be their friends for life...at least until you decide that you only want to stay one night, take a short ride, or heaven forbid, not buy anything at all. Even then, they still don't get mean, rude, or otherwise scary...they just keep at you, and the conversations go round and round something like the examples below. In fact, I have concluded that in such conversations the participants are not really even having a conversation; instead we are just reciting commonly used pre-determined lines.

"How much you want pay for scarf?"

me: "I don't want to buy your scarf, it's not the type I'm looking for"

"How much you pay? Very cheap price"

me (trying to walk out of the store while repeating that I don't want the scarf) while being detained by the desperate salesman with calls of "I have many scarf, just looking a minute"


"You want to take taxi ride?"

me: "No thanks I want to walk"

"I give you taxi ride very cheap"

me: "No, I'm not going very far"

"Short ride very cheap, I give you ride"

me (trying not to get run over by the zealous taxi driver who is staying very close to me): "Hey, I said I don't need a taxi, thanks, but NO"

Delhi's tourist/shopping street was a big step up from the one in Kolkata, and still a big step short of the one in Bangkok. Tons of vendors lined stuffed clothing shops on both sides of the street itself, and all kinds of conveyances clogged the middle. Everything really did seem to be cheap even before we started bargaining, but there was a mind-blowing amount of "friendly" guys just trying to practice their English who waited in alleys and fell in step next to us during any trip out of our hotel room for food, internet, or sight-seeing. But it was the street itself that really cracked us up. It was only about 20 feet wide, and while a few vendors had paved small sections of their turf, all of the middle was still bumpy, rutted dirt that had a tendancy to collect trash, spit-globs, and dung in large quantities, even as the nearby vendors swept it up. It appeared likely to my engineer's eye as well, that in the rainy season, the water would probably overflow the street and inundate the small shops and their inadequate stoops. Not to mention the amount of mud that such a street could generate just from walking around. Note to self...never come here during the rainy season...as various unmentionables would then be free to float into the water and in turn reach your feet.

February 17 - Agra and the Taj Mahal

Since we had flown to Delhi instead of training it, we went right over the city of Agra and had to backtrack a little to see the Taj Mahal. Luckily, every other tourist in India also wants to see the Taj Mahal but still sleep in Delhi, and the Indian Train Line has timed a train just for such a purpose. It leaves early in the morning, and after a couple of hours we were in Agra. The couple of hours on the train were probably the most posh we've ever had for a $8 ticket. Our train was full of chairs not unlike an airplane, and the car steward first came 'round with water bottles for everyone, then a newspaper, then an individual tea tray and our own carafe of hot water, and then finally a breakfast. He was continuously on the move, and barely had the last trays collected before we were arriving in Agra. Of course, we are still in India, and from his view out the window, Rob reported seeing about 70 people using the multiple train tracks as their personal bathrooms.

We arrived in a city so dirty that it was hard to believe that the Taj Mahal would deign to stay here, and the knowledge that we had 12 hours to kill somewhere in the vicinity. After spending an overly long time trying to figure out how to rent an auto rickshaw (they have a pre-paid booth that is supposedly cheaper but I think it is just another group in cahoots), we convinced a driver to take us to our first objective and then to the next. He spent a lot of the ride trying to convince us that we should hire him for the whole day "Cheap for you, good for me". It was really cheap, but we didn't like the idea of someone always waiting for us at the exit, and when his auto rickshaw conveniently (for us) broke down right where we wanted to be dropped off, we paid him for the mornings rides and walked off to his cries of "fixing only 5 minute, very quick".

Our first stop of the day was to Akbar's Mausoleum, and it was an imposing structure with huge gates, a tall wall, and curly-horned Impala deer grazing on the only section green lawn that we had seen in India. The walk down the raised walkway between herds was quite long, and finally we arrived at the tomb. We removed our shoes, tipped the shoe-minder, walked down a small tunnel to the dead-end burial chamber, and Rob found heaven. Well, ok, he found the best echo chamber in the entire world. The flower guy (who handed out flowers to put onthe tomb, for a tip, and then reused the same flowers for the next tourists) sort of moaned a sonorous hello, and the echos bounced back for 3 or 4 seconds. Rob found a second calling, and stood in the corner of the room for a while making sounds to see how they would "sound". I have to say, it was really cool, and brought a smile from everyone.

Outside the mausoleum were some black-faced monkeys and some very big green parrots, but our ride was waiting and we were off to the Fort. It just so happens that it is one of the biggest forts in India, but when we saw the columns of the Taj Mahal in the distance, we bypassed the fort entirely and headed straight for the Taj. It was about then that our ride broke down, and we walked the rest of the way through a park that almost seemed vaguely park-like, except for the postcard touts.

Entering the Taj Mahal cost us more than the average worker makes in a week, and the money definitely isn't used to clean the green gunk out of the fountain-water, but the Taj itself was a beacon of light in a dirty world. In short, it was worth seeing, despite the crazy city around it. The white marble shone in the sun, and as the day wanes, changes hues to match the sky. We stayed for hours, watching the people, inspecting the marble and inlaid stones up close, and generally enjoying a sort of sanctuary from the rest of India, although we could still see piles of trash over the wall in the bordering river. After hours of me wondering aloud why the pitiful fountains were spouting just enough water to ruin the reflections but not enough to look cool, they shut off for the sunset. We stayed as late as we dared, then headed out to let a rickshaw capture us for the ride back to the station.

February 19 -21 - Hardiwar and Rishikesh

The train journey to Hardiwar was another luxury ride, with the stewards coming round again and again with water, tea, breakfast, newspapers, more tea, and finally the tip jar. I took a newspaper out of boredom (my mp3 player was dead), and found several of the articles so fascinating in a scary funny way that I absolutely must share them with you. The newspaper was called The Indian Express, but many of the articles were local ones from the city of Delhi. Here's a few of the headlines with some accompanying quotes:

**City's residential areas to have parking sites**

The Municipal Corporation of Delhi wants to create about 500 new parking areas. "Most of these sites are already being run as illegal parking by the parking mafia." "The Corporation is in the process of authorizing these unauthorized parking sites." [paraphrase] However, the Traffic Police in Delhi have to approve the sites first, the Traffic Police won't respond to the requests by the Corporation, the Traffic Police have a habit of objecting to the authorizations after the fact, and they tend to tow all the cars parked in the new "authorized" parking area.

**Drain plan to end unclean water woes**

"Residents of Block C-1 and C-2 of [a Delhi suburb] have been dealing with dirty sewarage water flowing from their taps for almost 10 years now." "With the area's drain passing through a Cattle Dairy at present, sewage from the area gets mixed in the water supply before it reaches residents." "Recently, due to a blockage in a drain in the area, residents of the area had complained of receiving water mixed with cow dung from their taps." [paraphrase] Plans are now in place to separate the sewage from the water before allowing clean water to move forward, and the 3km drain will be completed by the end of the year.

**World Bank withdraws funding to road project over laxity**

[paraphrase] A 485 kilometer stretch of road coming out of Lucknow is in the process (read: all torn up) of being expanded into a four lane highway. Work is progressing so slowly that funding may be withdrawn. Work may or may not continue.

**Don't push pedestrians to subways**

[paraphrase] One particular roundabout in Delhi is so congested that city planners are considering digging a pedestrian subway, and the author is arguing against it in the idea that pedestrians don't want to be pushed underground. However in this case, it takes 10 policemen posted in the circle to regulate it, and they stop traffic for 20 seconds every 2.5 minutes for pedestrians to cross during non-peak hours. "[The author] advised the police commissioner that they should stop traffic for at least 10 to 15 seconds every 2-3 minutes even in peak hours, to enable elderly, children, women and others to cross the road."

Upon arriving in Hardiwar, we immediately caught a local bus for an hours ride to Rishikesh, which cost us 40 cents each, and was the bumpiest, dirtiest ride we have had yet. After another short rick-shaw ride, we eventually ended up at a pedestrian bridge, crossing the Ganges River into our chosen part of town. This upper section of Rishikesh was something of a change from what we had seen so far in India. Built in the foothills of the Himalayas, the narrow streets and two "pedestrian" bridges were narrow enough that they could only be navigated by motorcycles, making the traffic on the streets a little more tame than normal. Normal 4-wheeled traffic had a 16 kilometer detour to the nearest bridge upstream. The Ganges river was still a brilliant green color and seemed almost clean enough to swim in (at least upstream of the city), on account that it had just emerged from the sparsely populated mountains. Even the locals seemed a little more tame than usual, the shopkeepers rarely shouted for our business, and there was a nice absence of "friendly" men falling into step alongside us and wanting to chat.

The change might be explained because Rishikesh is something of a haven for yoga and meditation gurus, and the whole place is alcohol free and strictly vegetarian. Most people come to stay in or visit the Ashrams, made famous by a Beatles' visit back in..., well, a long time ago. We found a normal hotel high on the hillside, and since we arrived in the low season (i.e. too early for trekking), we got a room with a balcony and view of the river for a pittance. The famous view of this place is of the two "wedding-cake" Hindu temples, rising 11 stories above the river until the top floors are just tiny open stairways and walkways. Devotees constantly seem to be climbing and descending said stairways, ringing the bells on each floor, so the town is always chiming with bell tones.

It took us a while of searching before we actually found the nice room up on the hill, as the town is full of budget hotels of the kind where you want to smell the blankets and look at the bathroom floor before you agree to stay in a room. However, after making the climb up the steep hills and finding a room higher than the tallest Ashram bell-ringing stairway, we discovered our room had thick, furry, new-seeming blankets and marble floors. So what if it had a couple of cows living in the area right below our balcony, and an empty, trash-filled property across the sidewalk? Anyway, back to the room, with its high ceilings and spacious square-footage, we couldn't be happier. Unlike most of SE Asia's spagetti mess of wiring, most hotels in India seemed to have planned and executed the wiring inside the walls, making the rooms, with a fresh coat of paint, seem almost like home. The downside is that there always seem to be twice as many light-switches as needed, all of them unmarked and half of them seeming to do nothing at all. This room was no exception, and I turned on and off random fans and lights for several minutes before discoving how to turn on the socket so I could recharge my mp3 player.

The foreigners here in Rishikesh are a strange lot. It almost seems like they have been snatched out of the hippie era of the 60's and dumped in India. As a whole, they seem to have adopted baggy pants, striped shirts, dreadlocks, and a willingness to live in communal ashrams. I particularly like to laugh at their pants, and Rob actually bought a pair as a gift. The crotch in such pants droops almost to the knee and sometimes the calf or ankle. If it wasn't for the baggy aspects of such pants, I would think it might make it hard to take a normal stride. The locals don't seem to wear them at all. I guess such foreigners spend their days doing yoga, meditating, and trying to save the world beginning with their own mind. But I really don't know, I'm just guessing.

I got attacked by a monkey today. I had walked down to the bridge, buying a couple of flat-breads on the way, from a vendor clearly not used to selling just the bread. He reached under his bedding behind the counter, pulled out a dirty, greasy newspaper, and wrapped up my breads in that. Anyway, quickly discarding the disgusting paper, I walked to the bridge to look out over the Ganges and munch on my bread. Just as I reached the edge and looked over, a blur came up over my shoulder and snatched a chunk of bread from my hand. The monkey landed on the wall, grimaced fiercely at me, and when I swatted the air to keep him from stealing more, jumped over my head to a bridge support. I got out of there before he could make a clawing jump at my face. Later on that day, I went for a walk along the upper highway following the river, intending to visit the water and the beaches along it. Instead I found more monkeys. The first two were together, and I looked them in the eyes. Big mistake. They hissed, made horrible faces, and their body language told me that they were going to make a leap for my head. For the second time in a day, I beat a hasty retreat. I think they followed me home.

Rob would hardly believe my fear of the monkeys (remember, I had actually fed them in Thailand, with no problems), so I brought him back out to the road the next afternoon. I guess they were all sleeping, so we just walked for miles until we finally found a place to descend to the river. Rob had a sincere urge to say that he had swam in the Ganges, so we made our way through sand and rocks to the waters edge, and he took a dip. It was cold. I found a dry rock to perch on, and noticed after a while that it wasn't very dry anymore. I moved to a higher rock and almost got wet there also...the river rose almost 2 feet in the time that we had been there. (On our way back out to the road, we saw letters painted on a rock stating "Danger flooding after 2:30 p.m." Good to know.) We also saw lots of rafters float by, and a few kayaks. Although the river didn't seem to have very many rapids, it was large, deep, cold, and of constantly varying depths. The rafts kept coming by until almost dusk, which seemed kind of late to be floating, yet very few of the paddlers were wearing wetsuits. We made a mental note to not take a rafting trip here.

There are two kinds of monkeys around the town, the bigger black-faced ones and the red-faced smaller versions. On the walk back home we saw both of them hanging out in trees and along the road. The black ones, which even as babies looked nothing more than a venerable, wise old man; were quiet, non-aggressive, and stood patiently for pictures (Rob was happy). But close to our hotel, we found the red-faced ones out in force, and as Rob looked at them and tried to take pictures, they hissed and took an aggressive stance. I must admit I felt justified when even Rob abandoned his pictures and retreated. At one point there were six of them sort of surrounding us, and we wondered if we were in trouble. Of course, I think most of it was just posturing on their part, a sort-of scare tactic, because we must look as big as elephants to them, but...eye contact is a bad idea. Maybe next time we will bring bananas and smile.

February 23,25 - The mountain drive up to (and back down from) the Himalayas

Instead of risking our life on a river raft, Rob was convinced his life couldn't go on without seeing the Himalayas in all their snowy glory. Faced with the option of riding a local bus for 12 hours on mountain roads, we did the prudent thing and hired a car (and driver). It illegal for foreigners to drive cars, at least in the mountains, hence the driver. He picked us up at 6 a.m. from our hotel in Rishikesh, and we started the long drive. I should have known it would have been a long day, when the bus ride is supposed to take 12 hours, but a small car still almost that long.

Within a few moments of life in the small car, we realized our driver couldn't speak English beyond a few words like "good morning, river, breakfast, yes, and toilet". He made a valid attempt at it, though, and on the way up would sporadically spurt a few facts about all the rivers we were seeing, but really all we could hear was "blah blah blah river blah". So we spent most of the long drive in complete silence.

It is amazingly scary how little roadway two vehicles actually need to pass each other, even with a sheer drop on one side and a rock wall on the other. Our driver was amazingly sharp at the wheel, and wielded the car like he was an Indy driver, racing around trucks, squeezing through narrow sections, and honking the horn like crazy. He was never quite reckless, but we careened through towns and only a lot of honking forced the dogs, cows, monkeys, pedestrians, and oncoming traffic out of our way. Every other driver on the road was the same way, so there seemed to be plenty of near-misses, close-calls, and chances of death.

The mountain road itself was a real piece of work. It was only 150 miles up to Josimath, but it would end up taking us over 9 hours. I think the Tour De France peloton can bicycle much faster than our average speed for the day. In most places, the road was only one lane wide. In a very few places it was a normal road, but even that was broken every so often by a missing chunk of blacktop and the accompanying bumps and rocks. We even passed a living tree that had been left right in the middle of a lane, with blacktop poured all around it. No signs announced the obstacle. When two lanes of blacktop did exist, more often than not one lane was blocked by dump-truck-sized piles of rocks, patiently waiting to be picked back up and used.

If the road had been built even remotely close to the river level, I'm sure it would have saved half the distance we drove, but we wound our way high up on the hillside until the river was just a ribbon far below. The side valleys at that point became significant obstacles, and we spent hours zig-zagging back into them before returning to the main valley. There never seemed to be a straight section, and several times I hit my head on the ceiling of the car from the swerving and constant bumps. I went to put my seatbelt on, for motion control at least, and then realized that it had either been shoved under the seat, or cut out. No seatbelt. Upon careful consideration, I concluded that if we took a headlong dive over a cliff, I would rather be dead than a vegetable in the Indian hospital system. In that same frame of mind, I noticed that there was a fire extinguisher installed just where the passenger's head was sure to hit it in a collision. Of course, we made it back alive, so no worries.

The entire distance seemed to be under construction, and by that I mean the "already torn up, ready to be put back together, but it might take 5 more years to finish", type of under construction. And I know that in your mind you are already imagining cranes and heavy machinery and all the rest of the equipment you need to make a road. Well, don't. There wasn't any of it. NONE. What we did see were lots of men wielding pick-axes, hammers, shovels, and, when a boulder proved to big to handle, the occasional jack-hammer. Most of the men seemed to be breaking rocks into about fist-sized chunks, then making neat little piles of said chunks. There were even women out there with hammers, wearing sarees and head-scarves, making more small rocks. There were plenty of dump trucks on the road. To fill the trucks with rocks, the truck would back up to a cliff, men would pick rocks out of the cliff, and then physically throw them in the truck. You guessed it, to get rocks off the road, it was also by hand, with a toss into the truck bed.

With all the construction came a lot of dust. On the black-topped sections, a few times we passed men sweeping dust off the highway with straw brooms. Compared to the state of most of the road, this seemed a ludicrous waste of time, but who really knows. When the construction crews were at work on our way back, traffic would get stopped up for a while, and then proceed on again through choking dust, with no traffic lights or cops seeming to regulate the flow of vehicles. By our careful observation, road construction seemed to follow these stages: First, digging out the road with pickaxes. Then, filling it back in with the rock chunks made by the men. Next, adding sand and gravel. Finally, pouring a thin layer of black-top. The black-top was cooked over fires and stirred by men with long poles, then carried somehow (bucket or wheelbarrow) over to the road and somehow flattened. Our brains had short-circuited already at seeing women with hammers and a pile of small rocks, so you can imagine this was all pretty unbelievable. We imagined ourselves back in the Stone Age of road construction. We imagined it would take years and years to finish the road.

February 24 - Josimath, Auli, and the Himalayas

For those of you who are wondering if I am making up these stories, I assure you that there is no need for my imagination here in India. Sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction, and all I have to do here is write what I see!

Well, regardless of the shape of the road, the views from it were amazing. The green river, the blue sky, and the terraced fields surrounding the villages were very scenic. The hills were impossibly steep and high, and the farmers had carved extremely narrow, layered terraces for their rice fields. Some of the fields were only a few feet wide, but about 30 or 40 layers high. The towns clung precariously to the hillsides, with tiny trails leading off along dangerous cliffs. Rock slides become a big problem in the rainy season.

Unfortunately, we didn't actually cover much ground as the crow flies, and upon arriving in Josimath, had a moment of wondering if we had actually gotten anywhere. The mountains had climbed high enough in elevation so that clouds appeared over them instead of the constant blue sky and sun, but there was no snow in sight. The town itself was just another dirty, rundown, tiny place, and our driver waited patiently while we looked for a decent hotel. We never found one, and ended up choosing the cheapest option on the theory that if they were equally bad, and why pay more for grime? The book had warned us to ask for a room with heating, as it was pretty cold up at 1900 meters elevation, but none of the rooms seemed to have heat, and we got blank stares when we asked about it. Oh, well.

So our hotel room had thick blankets, at least, but it was quite chilly both inside and out. Other than that, the bathroom was pretty dirty, and the bed was the thinnest version of a typical Indian mattress. I should tell your here that it has been a really long time ( SE Asia, maybe?) since we have seen a normal double mattress, or even a normal set of double sheets. Here they build a raised bed frame, cover it with a sheet of plywood, and then about a 3 inch mattress goes on top. Mattresses only seem to come in one size, which is a twin, so at least the double beds (two twin mattresses together) were huge, if not entirely soft. Rob threw himself onto a bed once (the room was too small to walk beside the bed), and the whole thing creaked like we had cracked the plywood. We were afraid to look under the mattress and verify it.

The dirty bathroom had a working shower, but only icy cold water came out of it. Hot water had to be carried up to our room in a bucket (by our new friend the hunchbacked hot water man), and then poured over the head with a cup. The water was hot enough I needed to add some cold water, but the room itself was so cold that I never really got ahead of the shivers. Well, I got clean, I guess that's what matters.

After a chilly night sleeping in all of our warm clothes under the heavy comforter, we woke up to a drizzle, and our driver's knock on our door. Since we had really only hired him to drive us, and he wasn't much of a tour guide, we didn't really need him at all until the ride home. We're not much on being guided around anyway, but we let him lead us to the entrance to the cable car, and then arranged to meet him again to leave the next morning. We're not sure what he did for the day, or even where he slept, but it was hard to ask him any questions that didn't include the words "breakfast" or "river". Even Rob's legendary charm didn't accomplish much in this case.

India's longest cable car stretches 4 kilometers long and about 4000 feet straight up to the ski resort of Auli. Before arriving (and seeing the complete lack of snow) I had entertained ideas of actually skiing here. We had arrived in the late end of the ski season, which theoretically runs from December to March. Our guidebook describes Auli in contradictory terms, first as "India's premier ski resort", and then the slopes as "unremarkable gentle trails". It did go on to say that there was "consistently good snow", which had been the phrase, in truth, which had propelled me to even undertake the long drive up here. .

Anyway, the cable car was working again (after being broken the day before), and the rain in Josimath turned to snow in Auli, leaving a light skiff on otherwise bare ground. A group from Nepal crowded into the car with us (we could tell because they had matching puffy jackets with Nepal written in fading letters on the back). They were all carrying ski poles but no boots or skis, and wore woefully inadequate hiking shoes. Most of our flight in the cable car was over terraced farm fields, and at the top, having somehow flown over most of the promised ski resort but failing to see anything resembling one, it was snowing lightly and there was no view of the mountains we had come so far to see. Not a skier was in sight, given that there was maybe 1/4 inch of snow on the ground here. The jacketed group took off up the forested hillside, and we figured that following them would at least bring us to higher ground.

So with a woefully inadequate amount of water and food (the restaurant at the top was closed), we set off up the hill. After a good amount of huffing and puffing, we reached a Hindu temple where all the Nepalese folks were ringing the bells. They soon continued walking and disappeared. We stopped to snack on a bag of chips (before it popped from the elevation change), and then couldn't find the hikers again. We did find a couple of makeshift huts in a clearing, and from the sounds emerging, concluded that the group had gone inside. We walked still higher, and soon saw them all emerge wearing ski boots and carrying their skis...up the hill. Keep in mind that there is just the barest skiff of light snow on the ground, and under the trees the ground is bare.

When the trees ended, we could see higher elevations and slight amounts of snowbanks left from the last snowfall. A group of Nepal "skiers" had reached one of them, and were lined up side by side at the top of a "snowy" slope that couldn't have been more than 50 feet long. As we watched for a minute, they took turns "skiing" down the slope, and, removing their skis, then walking back up to the group. Most of them couldn't ski the short distance without falling down, losing their hat, gloves, and/or skis and poles, and enduring the catcalls of their onlookers. We talked to their leader for a second, who told us proudly that the group was in training for the Asia Winter Games, and that they had been waiting two days for the cable car to work (and maybe some snow to fall).

We continued climbing the cow-patty-littered dead grass, and came upon another small group of skiers. This time one guy was putting on his skis in a patch of snow not much longer than the skis themselves. I guess they were headed for a small bowl of snow that would only produce a second or two of skiing. It really was pretty unbelievable. Above the desperate skiers, the place started to look almost like a mountain-top, and as we talked for a second, the sun peaked out and we could see the tips of distant, huge mountains.

We continued climbing for a while towards the east, hoping that we would get a view of the big one. The Nanda Devi is the 23rd highest mountain in the world, and not only is it 25,643 feet in elevation, but it steeply rises over 10,000 feet from the deep valleys below it. For comparison's sake, our hike from Auli would only bring us up to somewhere around 10,000 feet. The mountains around it aren't dwarfs either, and when we finally came over the ridge, we could see many of them towering over us and bathed in clouds. The Nanda Devi was at least 20 miles away, but so huge we couldn't believe it.

To get to the ridge we were now standing on, we had actually *gasp* crossed a few ankle deep snow banks, but mostly it was still barren ground. A group of about 50 Indian soldiers, wearing M*A*S*H type green fatigues, passed us going down the hill, carrying their skis. They were friendly enough and many said hi, and they told us they had skied somewhere yet above us. We followed their tracks through the snow for a while to save our shoes getting wet. It was a bit cold and rather windy up there, enough so that we wore our spiffy new hats and gloves purchased in Rishikesh, but on the way back down, much of the fresh snow had melted already, and our sneakers got pretty muddy.

Back at the cable car, we concluded that if we rode back down, we would spend the rest of afternoon wondering what to do. I was pining for a bit more exercise (having been robbed of a day of skiing), so we decided to walk back down to town. A tiny snack shop (ok, really a tarp-covered waist-high dirty tent) outside the cable building saved our stomachs by digging out a bottle of water and some chips. We had seen a road from the cable car, discovered it was 14 km long, and started off. We immediately got confused trying to find the road, because we really didn't know where it started. What we did find was a bunch of workers in the process of building a huge ski resort, although we never really found the one that is already supposed to exist. But, we walked through cable trenches and over a newly graded ski slope, saw what might be a future skating rink or pond built right in the middle of a ski slope, and got funny looks from workers wondering where we were going. We probably gave them funny looks back, because most of them were individually attempting to carry 20 ft-long pipes up the hill on their shoulders. The ironic aspect to the scene was that the ground was completely thawed, the weather was pretty nice, and the apple trees were blooming not far below us; yet there were tons of workers constructing a brand-new ski resort during the ski season!

Anyway, eventually we maneuvered through a half-completed hotel building and found the road. Another tiny shack sold us a Sprite and told us of a shortcut through the woods down to town. We found it and saved a lot of walking by going straight down the mountain instead of around the windy roads. It was actually pretty nice on the hike down, there were huge trees, lots of greenery, and not much traffic or trash. When our knees got tired of pounding downhill, we walked the road for a while, and had great views of the terraced fields and the city still far below. The huge mountains slowly disappeared around the curve of the hill.

Closer down to the town, we started finding actual cement steps leading down between layers of mountain roads. We followed them and eventually found ourselves on back alleys in town, continuously still making our way back down to the bottom. The steps were so nice compared to, let's say, the state of the road getting to the town, that we concluded that the local Army unit may have had something to do with them. Perhaps they made the soldiers do volunteer work building the walkways in their spare time. At any rate, the steps were a nice change, and we found the walk pretty relaxing, all things considered. The people in the town seemed a lot more mellow than normal, and barely anyone even noticed us as we passed through, which for India was somewhat of a miracle.

Back down near our hotel, we scoped out the streets for a place to eat, after starving all day on our hike. We hopped into the first clean-looking place we saw and sat down at a booth. The waiter came over and comically didn't understand a word of English but nodded yes to everything we said. There was no menu, and only one thing to eat. We eventually figured this out, walked back to the pots at the front of the place, and motioned for two of...whatever it was. "It" turned out to be a boiled potato wrapped in a triangle of bread and then deep-fried. Then "it" was smashed into a small bowl, with garbanzo bean soup poured over it. "It" turned out to be really good, and very spicy. I was hungry enough to eat several of them, but my mouth couldn't handle the heat, so we stopped at just one, and looked for a proper restaurant. I think we found the only one in town that actually had a menu, and the grubby, nasty, laminated piece of paper was handed to us with pride. We ordered something, and for about the 5th (or is it 10th?) time in India, what we eventually ate only had a passing resemblance to what we ordered. I will say this, though, what we get is always better-tasting than what we ordered, so maybe the cooks just upgrade the ignorant foreigners' request to what they feel is their specialty. I'm always too embarrassed to ask what it is that I am eating, though, because theoretically I ordered it from the menu!

February 26-28 - Rishikesh

Once safely back in Rishikesh, we spent our last couple of days in India doing a lot of walking. We came back to the same hotel way up on the hillside, and right behind it was a gravel road that didn't have much traffic. We took long walks high above the river, and Rob even dunked himself in the Ganges again.

The cook/waiter/busboy at the rooftop restaurant of our hotel was an amazing cook. We were almost always the only ones eating, and and everything we ordered tasted wonderful. It was a good excuse to never leave our hotel as well!

From here we head to Cairo, Egypt, with a plane change in Doha, Qatar. I think the first thing we are going to do there is eat a hamburger!

A "bathroom", otherwise known as an alley in Varanasi


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