Thursday, September 27, 2007


Despite India's best efforts, we're starting to have a good time. Within, of course, the limits of dealing with India.

Jaisalmer in the rear view mirror looks, in fact, pretty good. If you ignore all the people annoying you to buy things from them, the rest of the town's folk are pretty nice, and even--dare I say it--approaching real.

But since my back is way too far gone for me to contemplate a camel ride, after a day wandering around the fort/old town, that was pretty much it for the tourist excitement. So we hopped on a six hour bus ride to Jodhpur.

Now Rajasthani buses are slightly less decrepit than 'ordinary' buses in the rest of India, and they even have an upper deck which consists of sleeping bays for people. But we've been finding that even the best bus rides in India are terribly exhausting, so that once we found a hotel we immediately turned the AC to high and conked out.

The hotel itself was the perfectly spotless throwback to colonialism that I had been looking for in the hill stations, complete with overstuffed chairs inside and a grassy, formal entrance outside. Old pictures of school graduations were on the wall and the 70 year old owner recounted his family's golden days playing polo with Prince Philip.

On Wednesday we headed into downtown Jodhpur, which was slightly more interesting than most Indian cities (which isn't saying much), and I noted the incredible over supply of autorickshaws. Drivers would ask for 50 rupees, but would then fold faster than the finals of an origami tournament, and meekly accept 20.

The main draw in Jodhpur (as if you didn't know it) is the giant medieval fort/palace built on a rock 400 feet above the city. Of course, I had to walk up to it in the 99 degree heat; Maureen was almost a good sport about it. From the top you not only look out towards various buttes and hillocks, but about 60% of the houses are painted a cobalt blue on top, so that the effect is quite, well, blue.

As foreign tourists we had to pay 250 rupees each, but we did get a great audiocassette tour, which lasted several hours of tramping through gates and rooms and palaces before we got to the end of it all.

Then it was back down the hill, wandering around trying to find an ATM, then back to the hotel, where we sat on the verandah for a while and then took our meals in our room.

And, again, that was about it for the tourist part of Jodhpur, and it was off the next morning for the presumably fabled city of Udaipur.

Monday, September 24, 2007


After 10 days or so you start acclimating. You expect nothing to work. You don't accept any piece of information without getting four independent verifications. If you are in any kind of tourist area you expect to be hassled by virtually every person you pass.

The actual headquarters of the Delai Lama turned out to be the stupidest Tibetan temple I've ever seen: An ugly yellow concrete block building with no 'vibe', hardly any Tibetan imagery of any kind, and with a sign where you are supposed to leave your shoes that said, 'Make sure that no one steals your shoes'.

Dharmsala stayed disturbingly damp. We left it at 10 the next morning on an 'ordinary' bus which, actually, wasn't that uncomfortable on a four hour journey. Then another four hour journey up another hill to get to Dalhousie, our fourth hill station, at 8 pm. Being lazy, I went to the closest hotel to the bus dropoff, which also happened to be the most expensive in town.

Great grounds, okay room, horrible food in the restaurant. The next morning, after the mist was clearing and we had determined that, although nothing incredibly special, Dalhousie was still the best we had been to, we hired a cab to take us down to Chamba, some 50 clicks away.

We started out amonst the pines at 6500 feet, wandering along the crest in and out of rain. Once we started going downhill the sun came out and the terrain started getting Ecuadorian, with terraced fields amongst the very steep and verdantly farmed hillsides.

Chamba is at about 2,000 feet and has a few mediocre temples. However, it also gets very few tourists, so that for once we had the opportunity to walk around unmolested. Like most Third World countries famous for hassling tourists, the 'real' people in Chamba were friendly and polite. And it was probably more prosperous than most of the other places we've been passing through.

But, still, you have to understand that the infrastructure of India is by and large almost worst than that of West Africa. Yes, they have electricity. But the roads are a horrible potholed mess, most of the housing looks like the aftermath of a war in a country that was dirt poor to begin with, creature comforts are often not available even if you've got the money, and the total disregard of the monied classes for the poor has to be seen to be believed.

Not that I've seen that many of the monied classes anyway. I've read that enclaves exist, and I'm anxious to see them, but so far...

We went back up to Dalhousie, where I had to concluded that most of the Dalhousians were pretty genuinely friendly, also. Then it was time for bed and another ordinary bus at 7:30 the next morning.

We got to Amritsar by about 2:30, and the temperature was in the 90s. Although the Punjab was traditionally one of the most prosperous areas of India, Amritsar was another dirty mess. An incompetent rickshaw driver couldn't even find the Golden Temple, Amritsar's one tourist draw, and we had to start walking. After 300 meters Maureen was totally wiped, so we went into an AC hotel and got a room.

I then left her there and took a rickshaw to the train station, where I successfully stood in line and got the proper tickets for our next destination. Returning, Mo and I walked the quarter mile or so to the Golden Temple around dusk.

The Golden Temple is the 'Vatican' of the Sikh religion, and once we took off our shoes, ritually washed, and started our circumambulation of the temple, we were able to partake of the meditative spirit. I got great pictures of the sun going down over the reflecting pool, and then, later, of the moon shining over it. For the first time in India we had a tourist experience that was worth experiencing.

Maureen just had to be bicycle rickshawed over to the Pizza Hut on the other side of town, which, given how crappy the rest of the town is, was kind of a surreal experience. Then back to the hotel, up at 6 am, and over to the train station.

We were now going to Jaisalmer, which involved taking the train back to Delhi and getting another one for the overnight to the far end of Rajasthan, which is where Jaisalmer is. I bought '2AC' tickets, which are the classiest ones.

The ride was not all that classy, however, and in general the 'berths' aren't even up to 2nd class standards in Mongolia. It did have AC, however. So, although we kept being misdirected at the Delhi station, and although I had to hassle for about an hour on the next train so that Maureen could get a lower berth, all in all it was a hell of a lot better than the bus.

So now we're in Jaisalmer, which is supposed to be a 'fairy tale castle/fort right out of the Arabian nights'. Not exactly. But it is kind of cool, what with us staying in a centuries old building on the edge of the centuries old fort. And it's all made out of this sandstone that is perfect for carving, so that amidst all the usual ugly junk are incredibly crennilated balustrades, etc.

Of course, as is almost always the case, there's a lot less to see than the tour books pretend. So tomorrow am we're off again, this time to Jodhpur, where we get to wear really baggy trousers.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

My Audience With The Delai Lama

The first thing I noticed was that in person his ineffable aura looked a lot smaller than it does in photographs.

We were introduced, and when he found out I was from the States he immediately asked me if I happened to know Richard Gere. I said, no, but that I had a friend who used to be a film editor on The X Files. He seemed really impressed by that.

Then he asked me who I liked for the World Series. I said that I was a Phillies fan, and he said, 'Now there's a meaningless attachment. You should stick with the Yankees. With their payroll, they'll never lose'.

I don't know if I was feeling defensive about the Phillies, but I blurted out, 'Okay, then, Mr Lama, then what's the secret of existence?'

All of a sudden he got real serious. 'Life,' he said, 'Is like a wheelbarrow.'

'What? Life is like a wheelbarrow? That joke is over forty years old!'

He got even more serious. 'No, no, you don't understand,' he said. 'It really is.'

I rolled my eyes. 'Okay, how is life like a wheelbarrow?'

All he did was make a motion like he was toking on a roach. All the other monks around him cracked up. Then he turned back to me and said, 'Hey, what's the difference between a Buddhist and a nudist?'

I rolled my eyes again. 'All right. What's the difference?'

He said, 'Do you want me to show you?' And all the monks cracked up again.

I didn't like where this was going, so I went to get up. 'Whoa,' he said, 'Where's your tantric sense of humor? After all, I'm not the one who came halfway around the world to see YOU! What makes you think you can judge comedy?'

So I explained to him that in fact I make a living from selling comic t-shirts, so that I indeed am a good judge. At which point they rolled out this weird Tibetan scroll computer and he asked me the name of my website. When he got there, amazingly enough he really cracked up. In particular he liked the 'Global Warming' one.

In fact, now his attitude changed completely, and I was invited to join him down in his Jungle Room, where there were 37 thankas hanging simultaneously. As we were sitting around another monk mentioned as to how the Delai had been totally stoned one night and had shot out three of them with this pearl handled Colt revolver that he had been given by, of all people, Richard Nixon.

After a while I went with him to the Temple restaurant where we had some tsampa beer and water buffalo wings. When it came time for some karaoke, he got up and said, 'People think the bodhisattva is nice and sattvic. But we Tibetan Buddhists don't do anything nice and sattvic. Then he belted out:

Left a good job as a siddhi working for the Manu every night and day
But I never lost a minute of sleep focusing my chakras on the middle way
Prayer wheels keep on turnin', karma it keeps on burnin'
Rollin', rollin', rollin' down the the yugas.

As the night wore on he started rambling a bit, and kept saying how him and me and Steve Fossett should go ballooning some time. I didn't have the heart to tell him.
But, all in all, it was a great end to a day that had started out poorly


The Jeep To Ladakh business is a key element in Manali's economy. Yet it has never occured to any of them to install heaters or even stock blankets.

The 7:30 deluxe bus to Dharmsala was only slightly less junky than the bus from Shimla. Every time I'd finally get to sleep the light would come on and the bus would stop for fifteen minutes. At some point it stopped and picked up all the passengers from the 6:30 bus, so that we were now all squooshed together. Maureen didn't sleep a wink.

The system they've developed over 40 years of a tourist trade is that the only buses that run the route drop everyone off at 5 in the morning, when none of the hotels are open. I finally found someone awake at a 'mid-range' one who showed me a room that looked barely tolerable.

Until, that is, we sat on the sheets. They were cold and damp. Come to think of it, the entire town felt cold and damp. I slept for about 2 hours, but Maureen didn't. At 8 she woke me up with a blood curdling scream. A giant black spider had scared he in the bathroom, and she doesn't scare easily with spiders. So I got up and went around to other 'mid-range' hotels. They were all worse. The dampness was limitless. I came back and had the guy bring us more blankets. He also went into the bathroom, grabbed the spider by one of its legs, and threw it outside. I slept for another hour, but Maureen couldn't.

At 11 we walked around the 'town', which was more woebegone than the other places we have been so far. We found a restaurant, and this being the Tibetan Refugee Capital of India, I ordered some 'momos'. Now I had suspected that if Tibetan food were any good then there'd be tibetan restaurants all over the world, and it turned out that my suspicions were justified. Not only didn't my body thank me for it afterwards, but I wouldn't be surprised if it was pissed off at me about it for the rest of my life.

Then it was back to the hotel, where Maureen is finally getting a little sleep. And I am sitting at a tiny internet place trying to pass the time because the damp outside has turned into a steady rain. The good weather news is that, come Saturday, Amritsar will go down from 105 to 98, Jodhpur will go down to 95, Delhi will go down to 90, Udaipur will be 85, and Katmandu will be starting to stop raining.

Speaking of which, as soon as it stop raining I'll go get Mo and we'll tramp down to the Tibetan Monastery complex, where I hope to be able to ask the Delai Lama what's the deal with those momos.

Monday, September 17, 2007

The Shakes

One thing I forgot to mention about Shimla is that it is the quintessential middle class Indian tourist town. And all the thousands of middle class Indian tourists do is walk up and down The Mall, about a half mile strip of shops and tourist crap strung along the top of the Shimla ridge.

And the other thing to mention is the monkeys. Hundreds of them live right in and among Shimla, and troops are forever climbing up and down the sides of buildings, over rooftops, from there to trees, and back again. They're not the most attractive of monkeys, almost baboon like, but they come in all sizes from ridiculously cute babies clinging to mother to teenagers to big old males. The Indians totally ignore them, but it's hard for us not to be entranced.

But that was about all there was to Shimla, so we got ready to leave on Thursday night. I was so knocked out by our hotel's hot water that morning that I decided to take another shower right before bedtime. Bad idea. When I went to dry myself off the night cold got to me, and my body got a case of the shakes. Maureen threw a bunch of stuff over me and it calmed down.

The bus Friday morning was supposed to be 'deluxe', but it had cramped, barely cushioned seats. For 10 hours we crawled down and around endless curves, finally ending up in Manali, which is supposed to be more of an alpine type resort, around 5:30.

It isn't. Rather it's another crowded, somewhat annoying Indian town surrounded by pine covered hills at the head of a valley. We found a hotel, then went across the street to a restaurant, which had high priced but decent food.

By now I was feeling quite exhausted, having gamely put up with the vicissitudes of the past week. Now, as we walked in the night back across to the hotel, I started getting the shakes again.

And they didn't go away once I was under the covers.

Saturday was basically spent in bed with a fever of about 100. Fortunately, I wasn't showing any other signs of disease. And by Sunday morning the fever was gone. By Sunday evening I had enough energy to walk around a bit.

Meanwhile we were figuring out how to get out of here. A Super Deluxe bus back to Delhi probably would be, but Delhi is 100 degrees, and the places we were going from there are 105. A taxi to Ladakh would be cool, and I was negotiating for one, but it turns out that they don't have heaters and go up over 17,000 feet, and we don't have winter clothes with us.

So it looks like we're taking the Deluxe bus to Dharmsala, the home to the Delai Lama and a bunch of Israeli hippies, tonight. Supposedly this Deluxe is going to better than the last one, although like the bus to Delhi, it only goes at night...

Thursday, September 13, 2007


This time the Executive First Class Train leaves from Track 1. The seats are comfortable. A steward brings a fresh newspaper, chai, breakfast. Heading north this time, the passing farmland looks almost prosperous, the villages are just dirt poor, not horribly stenching cesspits. The A/C breezes past our faces.

We get to Kalka and transfer to the 'Toy Train', a narrow gauge railroad up the mountain. 'Coach Car' now refers to tiny, vinyl covered seats. We sit crammed with other westerners, middle class Indians, and a ton of backpacks, etc. Five very slow hours up, up, and up.

India is famous for its Hill Stations, towns built literally on the tops of mountain ridges so as to escape the heat of the summer. I had been to Mussorie years ago, and it was a relatively small town, consisting almost entirely of cavernous old Victorian buildings where you would go in and there'd be a waiter in an old faded colonial uniform formally asking you, the stringy haired backpacker, if you would be taking high tea.

I had therefore always wanted to see Shimla, which had been the summer capital of the entire British Raj. Unfortunately, time has marched on, and not only is Shimla much, much bigger than Mussorie, and not on nearly as ridgy a ridge, but it's a lot more modern and well kept than I had hoped for. Moreover, although you're at 7,000 feet, you're at the top of pine covered hills, and you're not seeing any high snow capped mountains.

It is a lot cooler, however, and that means a lot right now. Especially when the five day forecast for Amritsar (where we go when we leave the mountains) is 108, 110, 109, 107, 109. And humid.

So this afternoon, having determined that Shimla is not our Himalayan cup of chai masala, we purchased a couple of 8 hour bus tickets for Manali, which is further up towards Yeti-Land.

(Hope you get the reference.)

Trazodone Dreams

About five years ago, growing old, I started having trouble sleeping the night through. A daughter recommended Trazodone, which, although it doesn't help you fall asleep, helps keep you a sleep. Worked like a charm.

Except that about a year or so ago I noticed that it had started to cause vivid, intense dreams. Where you never got to get where you were going. Where no plans ever worked out, but did so in incredibly complicated ways. Still, there were times when I needed that full night's sleep.

Like Tuesday night. Sure, we now had a train that left at 7:30, but still, we were dog tired. So lights out at 9:30, a planned wakeup at 6:30, and I am way past sound asleep. Except that at 10:15 the phone rings and the guy says, You want breakfast in your room in the morning?' And I say over and over, 'No! No breakfast!' Until he finally says, 'Okay. No breakfast.'

So at 5:30 I'm having this trazadone dream where there are all these tough guys stealing all the musical equipment I've ever known, and I realize in the dream that they're taking stuff that isn't even worth anything. And I point that out to them, and they're saying, 'We're just doing to\his to you because we can'. And there is a loud knock on the door, and a guy says, 'Breakfast, sir!' And one of us opens the door and he hands us a giant pile of buttered white toast.

And I'm lying there awake in the dark, finally realizing that my life itself has become a trazodone dream.

We get on planes that decide that they can't go to Chicago. We get on a train where all the signs said it was going to Shimla and it went to Jaipur. Yesterday we were at a New Delhi park and I sat on the ground under a tree, and Maureen said, 'What if an ant bites me?' And I waved around at all the Indian families who were harmlessly sitting under trees. And so she puts her hand down so as to sit, and immediately gets viciously stung by an ant.

And it's still horribly itching 36 hours later.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Welcome To India

So we didn't sleep all that well and we woke up at 4:30 am. Out of our too-good-for-India hotel room and out into the very early morning street. Down to the train station.

Yesterday when we bought the ticket the guy said that the train usually left on Track 10. Sure enough, the big board said 'Himalaya Queen' was leaving on Track 10. I lug our stuff up and over and down to Track 10 and a guy at the platform confirms that 'Himalaya Queen' is leaving from there. The little electric train number signs on Track 10 read 4035, the number of our train.

At 5:45 the train appears and we board on to our nice air conditioned car. It takes off about 15 minutes later and we watch as the most incredibly decrepit less than ls next to the train tracks pass by. Into the open, flat, most uninteresting Indian countryside.

About an hour and a half later the conductor comes by to check the ticket. At which point he says, 'But this is the Jaipur train!' WHAAAAT????? That's right, when the train had come in I hadn't actually looked at the side of the car, where it said 'Ajmer' instead of 'Kalka'. Welcome to India.

So they toss us off the train at the next tiny town in the middle of nowhere. I leave Maureen with the stuff while I tramp up and over the tracks to try and find the ticket office. Once inside I found two lines of 20 men each, one of which had no ticket seller at the end of it. Now if I were to be a good egalitarian person and waited patiently, first of all, I might find out that it's the wrong line anyway. And second of all there's no way I could get the ticket within the 15 minutes before the only train back to Delhi came through.

So in my best imperialist rude manner, I just pushed myself in front of everybody else, stuck my hand in the tiny window, and did what I had to to get two friggin tickets. Then it was back to Mo at the platform two minutes before the train arrived.

Oh, and the only tickets for sale in the middle of nowhere were fourth class ones. Which meant that we were squooshed together on a narrow mat with a bunch of other fourth class passengers.

And by now it was getting hotter and hotter again. So that when we got to the old Delhi station we had to hop something to take us through the horrible traffic back to our hotel. Which being the only refuge we could think of in our by now totally frazzled beings, we booked into again.

A couple of hours lying on a bed in A/C later, we went back to the New Delhi train station and re-booked our tickets. Then an autorickshaw down to a couple of semi-tourist sights in New Delhi, which is a much more sedate version of Old Delhi. But it's weird that you have to upgrade two or three levels to just get up to Third World status in this country.

Now I'm back at the same little hotel internet site. Tomorrow will be the fifth day of our 'vacation' and so far we've had to totally repeat two of those days.

Monday, September 10, 2007

25 Hours & 25 Years Later

The plane from ABQ was only a half hour late taking off, and the one from Chicago was only an hour. But we had great tailwinds, so that the 15 hour flight was only 13 and a half.

It is more than bizarre to get on a plane in Chicago and get off in India. And it being a new 777 we each had a little screen in front of us. Which, since all the movies, etc., were completely awful, I kept tuned into the little flight map. So as the hours dragged by, I saw us go across Labrador, Greenland, Iceland, Moscow, the Aral Sea, Uzbekistan and Kabul. We were seated in the middle of the giant wing, so I didn't actually get to SEE any of that...

And we also went across 12 time zones, so that we landed, pretty much zonked out, at around 8 pm Delhi time.

Things had improved a bit in the 25 years since I had last been here. There was now A/C at the baggage carousel. Customs gave us a perfunctory wave through. And I don't know whtether it was because it was Sunday night, but hardly anyone bothered us once we got out of the terminal.

It was about 22 km to our hotel, and most of it was through the leafy, not too bad avenues of New Delhi. Then all of a sudden it became Old Delhi, with the garbage and the crappy old buildings. The guy found our hotel, they actually had a room, and the room was surprisingly pretty good: A/C, marble floor, clean bed, tv with 86 channels, water that became pretty warm after only a few minutes. We took a whole lot of melatonin, etc., and totally zonked out.

Monday morning we awoke bright and early and had a kind of cute breakfast buffet. Then we set off to reconnoiteur Delhi.

At 9:30 the streets weren't too crowded and the weather wasn't too dreadful. Just to acclimate, we walked the mile and a half through the grungy tourist hotel area to Connaught Place, the circular 'downtown' of New Delhi.

Since it had always been the most 'modern' shopping area 30 years ago, I expected it to be at least modestly upscale now. Uh uh. In fact, in certain ways it was now less so. I assume that that's because all the action has moved out to the suburbs...

Anyway, once we had walked around and found the McDonald's (mostly vegetarian) and the Pizza Hut, it was now about noon and getting very hot and humid. So we hopped on the brand new subway and went a few stops up to downtown Old Delhi.

Which was hot and humid and also not as interesting as I had remembered. Something about them curring down on the number of bullock carts allowed within the city. And not only that, but the Red Fort, Delhi's main tourist attraction, was closed today.

So we got an autorickshaw and went out to Shaktinagar, an area of Delhi where I had stayed at my guru's ashram way back in 1970. Now after he had 'left the physical plane' in 1974 his assistant had 'assigned' the guruship to someone who really didn't seem to fit the part (although Shania Twain is a dixciple). Anyway, it appears like he's dead now, since there was a billboard outside with some younger guy's face on it.

And I don't know where he is right now, but the ashram itself was virtually deserted, with just a few old guys in torn t-shirts lounging around. I know that you can't go home again, but this was ridiculous.

So we took another autorickshaw back to the train station, where I booked a couple of tickets to Shimla for 6 am tomorrow morning.

And then back to the hotel, and early to sleep.

Friday, September 07, 2007

The Adventure Doesn't Begin

In May we missed our connection to Ecuador and had to spend a miserable 24 hours in miserable Houston. This time we had a two and a half hour window in Chicago, so I figured 'no problem'. Being good citizens, we even arrived at the ABQ airport the full hour early.

Where we were immediately informed that our 1:15 flight was already 45 minutes late. They finally decided on a hour and a half. So at 2:40 we're rolling back from the gate and... we stop. Then we roll back to the gate and the pilot says there's going to be another, say, two hour delay.

Actually, considering, American Airlines was quite competent about everything. They let us get off the plane. They found us seats on Saturday's flight to Delhi. The delay was so long that they actually retrieved our bags for us.

But it made me think of long, long ago when I was thrown in jail. That was quite a shock to the system, mainly because it had never occured to me that THEY would ever actually do something like that to ME. But now, having gone through it once, if it ever happened again it just wouldn't be that big a deal.

Likewise, I was infuriated four months ago in Houston. But now, like every other flyer in America, I sheepishly accept my fate, eat the added expense, and make alternate plans. After all, it's the weather. It's not really anyone's fault.

Except that it is. I mean, how idiotic is it for the proverbial Richest Country In The World to depend upon a System that only barely works when the weather is absolutely perfectly wonderful in each and every city on the North American continent?

Well, at least my daughter was still tooling around Albuquerque, and could come pick us up. And at least we're back at home for the evening, and not stuck at O'Hare, trying to find a hotel room on Friday night along with thousands of other stranded travelers.

And, Golly!, tomorrow we get to do it all over again!