Thursday, October 30, 2008

India on one bag... Part 2

So, where was I...

Oh yeah... [NAME REMOVED] and I were at the New Delhi airport at 4 a.m. We boarded our flight on what I believe was a converted crop duster on Air India and flew to Bangalore. After a short layover and a brief conversation with a nun in the airport (true!) we took yet another conversion plane (I believe this one was formally used to transport livestock) to Kerala.

Kerala... is a small state on the southwestern coast of India. Its motto... God's Own Country. A little bold... but we'll see. We arrived in Kochi and walked straight out the door... the best part of only carrying one bag. Kochi is the largest city in the state, and we were greeting by a rep from the travel agency. He introduced us to Benny... our driver and defacto tour guide. With only about two minutes of greeting, we were told that our first destination was the town of Thekkady... four hours away.

Benny was rail thin, and wore an all white tunic that was made from the same material as the seat coverings that lined every inch of the little white TATA car. The car was drenched in an aroma of jasmine from the fresh flower lei that was dangling from the rear view mirror. We headed out of Kochi and started into the hill country of southern India. The hills seemed to slowly creep into the scenery after passing little town after little town. The men were all dressed in simple shirts with a wrap-around skirt on. Since the weather was warm, they all folded their skirts up and in, like a Daisy Duke halter top.

One of the biggest shocks to our system came from the smell and the colors. The air is thick with the smell of flowers, trees, and rain. There is almost no manufacturing in Kerala... most of the state is dedicated to agriculture, mostly tea, fruits, and spices. Those spices permeate the air wherever you go. And the deep green of the forests was spellbinding. Coming from a country where any green you see is rare, and clear blue skies only happen once in a blue moon when the dust is blown to sea... seeing lush green trees under an azure sky was breathtaking.

After a few hours of driving, we stopped for lunch at a little open air restaurant that overlooked a crystal clear river. It reminded me of the Comal in Texas, but much wider and forceful. Women lined the banks washing clothes as men played with naked children in the rapids. It was a very peaceful and serene setting... such a contrast with the urban warfare that Delhi and Agra provided. We left and Benny soon was driving on roads that winded around the edges of the massive hills. More than once I could look out my window and stare straight down several hundred feet at homes that were perched on cliff sides. My ears popped several times as the elevation increased hour after hour. After a few more hours in the car, we arrived at our destination... Thekkady and Lake Periyar.

Thekkady... we pulled into our hotel for the night, called Spice Village. The staff was very warm and friendly, and we were given jasmine leis... fresh jasmine flowers are my new favorite smell. We walked through the resort, in between tall trees and meandering through the thatched roof huts that were to be our room. Our little hut was very nice, with all handmade furniture and itty-bitty beds. We got comfortable and sat outside enjoying a drink. The air was much cooler than earlier in the day. There was an abundance of different plants surrounding our huts, each labeled with a name showing which plant bore which spice. Spice... you were always told about the spice routes and their importance thru history... but when you come to a place that was founded, fought, and survived thru nothing but seeds and stems... it really puts some things in perspective. Later, we went to a cooking demonstration of some simple Kerala dishes (fish masala and something even more delicious) and had the first of amazing buffet dinners! God the food!! The best Indian food I ever had in the states was absolute dogshit compared to the food I ate here. Not even close. I ate many a multicolored dish that had no discernible ingredients, and came back for seconds. Later, we went off to the bar for a beer. The bar was the original home of the nature conservator for the British East India Company. Its walls were lined with pictures of the first elephants spotted, tiger hunts, and of the elite British society that came to rule India.

The next morning we went off with Benny to Lake Periyar and the national tiger preserve. Yes... a tiger preserve. We drove thru a simple gate with signs that cautioned against opening your car windows and not to stop for elephants. Stopping at the lake, monkeys greeted our car looking for scraps of food. And not the cute Curious George kind... but the mean looking gnarled kind with red asses. We boarded a small boat with some Indian and Arabian families, and took an hour-and-a-half ride around the lake. The lake itself was a beautiful mottled green that was perfectly glassy. We saw wild boars, gnus, and a weird type of deer with curled horns drinking from the lake's surface. Unfortunately, we didn't see any wild tigers or elephants... there was plenty of water still in the hills, so they were staying home. But the ride was beautiful and serene, anyway. Later, we went on a tour of a working spice plantation. We walked thru a dense forest, and every few feet our guide would stop and explain spice after spice. Pepper, cardamon, tumeric, vanilla, etc. It was all very pretty and informative, but a little boring... then we saw the elephants.

They had four elephants under an alcove lazily eating hay and fruit. Two men were cooking a meal right next to them in a little lean-to, most likely their handlers. We paid a few dollars, climbed up a very rickety stepladder, and jumped on the back of a very large Indian elephant. The elephant slowly walked thru the spice plantation with a small man with a long white beard walking behind shouting commands. Squeezing thru impossibly narrow trees, the elephant lumbered on for about half an hour... occasionally pulling huge limbs of sugar cane and bamboo to each along the way. Once we were off, I bought a bowl of fruit to feed the beast, and he used his truck to steal a pineapple straight out of my hand.

On our way back to the hotel, we noticed that the car was starting to smell a little... funky. Almost immediately we realized that Benny was sleeping in the car at night. Not sure what to do (no please, Benny, come shower in our room...) before we left, we made sure to grab some extras jasmine leis from the front counter to mute some of the stench. After an incredible lunch, we set off for our next port of call... the backwaters.

The backwaters... before we got there, I was trying to figure out on our map just how far we were driving. According to the map, we were only about 150km from our destination... yet we drove for four-and-a-half hours. The roads winded around and around and around... sometimes they were just gravel and only wide enough for one car at a time. It turns out that the roads were made by elephants! India just came behind them and paved their walking paths! On the way, [NAME REMOVED] and I started the longest card game of War every undertaken. We couldn't even finish in the car, and took our cards to finish later.

We went from the spiced hills down to the backwater area near the coast. The backwaters are a maze of over 400 rivers, streams, and inlets that come together from the mountains. They are used for transportation, irrigation, and food. Benny parked the car near a bridge, and instructed us to board a longboat for the trip to our resort... since our resort was only accessible by water.
Side note: around this time, I noticed a zigzag rash along my right wrist. I thought it was a strange sunburn or maybe some sort of irritation I picked up from the elephant... and didn't think much of it... more to come later.

We took the longboat for ten minutes along a narrow waterway, passing huge houseboats called kettuvallum, made from reeds with thatched roofs, small stain glass windows along the sides with intricately carved wooded prows. Women were slamming clothing against the rocks to get them clean, and men in dugout canoes were using poles to skim the surface for fish. Our boat pulled up to a water gate where a guard let us enter the resort... Coconut Lagoon.

Coconut Lagoon was something you never forget. A small white wall separated the resort from the sunken river. The entire resort was bisected with small canals and bridges. We got off the boat and walked directly from the boat into the open hotel lobby. Immediately we were greeted by the staff, and they sliced open some coconuts for us to drink from while we checked in... nice touch. To get to our room, we crossed several small curved bridges, ducking under very low roofs and overhangs. The name of the area actually means "land of short people." It is because the locals were always knee deep in rice paddys, and they looked very short. It also meant that I cracked my skull open more than once while ducking into doorways.

Anyhow, our rooms was another small hut that overlooked the waterway. To the right, the waterway opened up into a large, shallow lake that was covered with water lilies. The best part of the villa was the bathroom... it was outside. That was a little strange, but very cool... you open the bathroom door, and there is only a little roof over the toilets, while everything else was in the open air. They had orchids growing out of coconuts hanging from the branches of trees, and an area dedicated for the local fish. The resort, and Kerala, is known for its massage treatments. In fact, the entire area is famous for its ayruvetic massage... a series of treatments, each one treating a specific ailment... from pimples to cancer. As [NAME REMOVED] was signing up for her two hour treatment for the next day, she was anxious to get me into my first massage. Now, I've had massages before, but they were always for physical therapy, not relaxation. So, she signed me up for one that was to cleanse the mind and spirit... so off I went.

The massage... oh boy. I walked into the massage center, isolated behind the resort overlooking a rice paddy. I was instructed to only whisper, and to follow Rajee, a tiny speck of a man about four feet tall. He took me into a back room, and asked that I take off my clothes. So I undressed down to my undies, and he looked at me and said, "all clothes." Damn... I'm not a huge fan of getting naked in front of other men... much less complete strangers. But there I was, completely naked... but not for long. Rajee then spun me around and tied a tiny string around my waist, which was to hold up the loincloth that covered my junk. And when I say covered... I really mean strangled my junk.

I sat on a tiny stool while Rajee gave me a twenty minute head massage; constantly rubbing his fingers over my scalp in swirls and patterns. So far, this was pretty nice. Next up, he laid me down on a table, face-up, with my head resting under some sort of scaffold. Soon, another little man came in carrying a large bucket on his head... filled with coconut oil. The restorative that I was getting is a procedure where they pour warm oil on your forehead to cleanse the mind. Slowly the room was filled with the smell of coconut oil warming on the heater behind me... I could hear the pops from the oil like frying bacon. They then filled a gourd over my head that was dangling from a rope, closed my eyes, and let the oil pour.

At first, I freaked out. That oil was hot... really hot. The sensation of hot oil being poured on my head and dripping off of me was strange. Rajee slowly moved the gourd from side to side. It became quite relaxing and nice. You could hear the insects outside, smell the oil and incense, and I drifted off for a while. But after about an hour, I was ready to finish... but they kept reheating the oil again and again. I kept thinking "they can't be heating more oil... it has to end sometime." When it was over, I very easily slipped off the table, and they held my hands into the outdoor shower. There, the oil was washed off my body... by Rajee. After I was soaped and rinsed, Rajee had me put my clothes back on, and then he gave me a red stripe on my forehead for luck, and some spice on my scalp to head with my breathing. I'll be honest... this was a really weird experience... but I really loved it. I tried to elope with Rajee, but he spurned me.

After breakfast, I read a book outside and walked around the resort for a few hours, before my next massage treatment. This time... it was a full-on two man job. Non-stop, oiled up, naked on a mat. Rajee and friend had their hands working up and down my body with a style that could only have come from watching synchronized swimmers. Two hours of unending man-on-man flesh rubbing. I was expecting them to start ripping their clothes off and to have the cheesy 70s soundtrack to start. Near the end, they started cracking every bone in my body. When they started cracking my toes, I lost it. I started laughing uncontrollably, trying but failing to keep my voice below a whisper. Thankfully, the treatment was over, or I thought it was. While still oiled up, I was put into a tiny steam bath and allowed to baste for about thirty minutes. When they pulled me out, the combo of steam and oil made me almost a frictionless human being. I was afraid if I slipped, no force on Earth was going to be able to stop my momentum. Finally, once again, Rajee washed and dried me down. And once again, I loved it!

And for the record... I am a heterosexual.

On our itinerary we had a one-line note that read, "lunch at backwater farmhouse." Not knowing what was going on, we were about to have lunch at the resort when they called and said that Benny was waiting to take us to lunch. We got in the boat and met Benny at the dock. He drove us for about ten minutes until the road actually ended against another waterway. He honked the horn, and about 500 meters across the water a man got out of a house, climbed into a dugout, and used his pole to push the boat across the water to meet us. We boarded, and without a word, he pushed us across the lily covered lake back to the farmhouse. We were met by a very nice woman who explained that we were on a private island farm that was owned by her family. She showed us their coconut and banana trees along with all their homegrown spices. After the tour, we were introduced to her grandmother, who was going to cook our lunch for us in their home. They have rooms on the island where people come and stay, and let the family cook and clean... called homestays. So while we waited for lunch, we browsed thru the photo albums that were on the coffee table, surrounded by photographs of children and dead relatives. In the photo albums were articles about the island and the family. But most surprisingly, their were large articles about the grandmother! According to Gourmet, Food & Wine, Conde Nast Traveler, and National Geographic Traveler, the grandmother was one of the most celebrated chefs in all of India! She is reknowned for her southern Indian cuisine... and she cooking for us in her own kitchen! Needless to say... it was some of the best food I have ever tasted. She even sat down with us and ate while answering the phone and making dessert. Incredible. We said our goodbyes, and went back to the resort so [NAME REMOVED] could get another massage. I took a nap in a hammock, and was awoken by a phone call from the front desk. "Sir, your sunset cruise is ready."

I rushed to the lobby and was guided to the large two-story boat. I met with [NAME REMOVED] and climbed on top along with an Indian family and a British couple living in Dubai. We pulled away from the resort and drifted into the lake. A man sat on the floor of the boat and began playing Indian folk songs on a carved flute. The sun began to change colors as we photographed snakebirds catching fish and flying off to their nests. Giant vampire bats were circling overhead and heading into the trees to feast on the insects. As the sun started to set, the boat cut the engines, and with solitary sound of the flute, we watched the red sun slowly sink under water. A beautiful ending to a beautiful day.

After dinner, it was big fruity drinks at the bar and some games of chess to finish of the day. Our bartender told us to get our drinks in, since there would be no alcohol for the next two days. The first of every month, no alcohol is allowed to be sold. On top of that, the next day was Gandhi Day, the national holiday celebrating the birth of Gandhi. So we made the most of our booze, and spent our last night on the water's edge.

Early the next morning,we climbed aboard the boat and met Benny at the bridge for yet another four hour car ride... this time heading straight up to the mountains and the famous tea plantations of Munnar.

Side note: one bagging is excellent! I had just enough clothes to last me until the backwaters. I paid about five dollars to have all my clothes cleaned by the hotel, and got them back before we left. With the additions of some small trinkets and gifts, everything (except for the rug) fit into the one bag. When it was time to get ready, simply everything went into the bag and we were off... very nice. My little daypack holding my water and cameras was working perfectly. Also, no Delhi Belly! The constant hand washing and checking of the food and water was paying off in spades by way of not shitting myself.

Remember that rash on my wrist? The first night, the rash started to slightly blister like poison ivy, but without any scratching or itching. The next morning, my wrist was covered with one, large, pus-filled blister. Although it never hurt, it looked like I had spilled acid over my arm... my skin seemed to be rotting off the bone. The pictures online don't even come close to how bad it looked. I kept having to give the pustules a squeeze to drain the fluid. Not the most pleasant thing. I'm pretty sure I must have brushed up against a plant while on the elephant and it did not like me one bit.

My wrists are starting to kill me from all the typing. I'll finish up my final two stops in India later today after flag football in Part 3.



Thursday, October 23, 2008

India on one bag... Part 1

Finally back from India! But not really. I got back about two weeks ago, and finally have a little while to sit and type. I'll post Part 1 today and the rest tomorrow. I've add a few pictures to the photobucket site (around 500) to keep everyone busy...

India was amazing! Absolutely, amazing! Now, as you read below, I definitely had my doubts about vacationing in India. But the country met, lowered, and raised my thoughts about the country at different times throughout the trip. Let me start from the beginning...

We're off... Flying out of Doha can sometimes be a hassle. It is a fairly small airport that is constantly growing, an incredibly tiny security area, and lots of passengers. We, [NAME REMOVED] and I went through security with no hassles, and got in the massive line for the final security check before customs. Thankfully, we both had gotten our E-Gate cards... which allows you to bypass the final security check, and ALL of customs! This had to have saved us half an hour of standing in line at least! We then snacked our way thru the Qatar Airways Silver lounge (it pays to date someone who travels a ton) and made our way to the gate. As we were boarding, we were upgraded to business class! Now that's a start to a vacation!

New Delhi... we arrived in Delhi at three in the morning, taking about an hour to clear customs. As you leave the airport, the first thing that hits you is the swarming mass of people. Hundreds upon hundreds of drivers, taxis, chauffeurs... all pushing into each other to get your attention. Now this was where I had my first sense of trepidation... because this is where [NAME REMOVED] and I were splitting up. She was headed to a friend's house, and I was headed in the city to find my hotel. She has traveled to India several times in the past, and is accustomed to how India works... not so much me. I prepaid for our taxis, kissed her goodbye, and watched as my girlfriend was swallowed up into the night in one of the most populous areas in the world. I then got in my taxi and left for the Clarke International Hotel.

Now, I should mention that I found this hotel on my own online. Good reviews, very cheap, situated in central Delhi. Translated... this means a very nice but very old hotel in the scariest part of all India. Where my hotel was located, the Karol Baugh area of Delhi, I soon found out is not considered the most scenic, or safe, or sanitized area of Delhi. Driving thru back alleys, pushing people and animals out of the way with the car to get to the hotel would definitely be considered one of the most harrowing times of my life. I have never traveled alone in a foreign city besides weekend trips to Mexico... and let me tell you... Brownsville ain't got nothin' on Delhi in the nighttime scary factor!

Thankfully, the hotel was very nice and comfortable. It had one of those old-fashioned elevators that you had to close the two wrought metal gates, hit the button, the pull the lever to move. Every time I operated it, when it stopped, I kept waiting for the doors to open... force of habit. I took ever bottle of water from the mini-bar, and kept washing my hands with disinfectant. See, in India, you don't drink the water... ever. You don't wash with the water, brush your teeth with the water, touch the water, or even look directly at the water. Even a slight glance at a faucet and you will come down with "Delhi Belly." Everyone who has ever been to India warns you... constantly. [NAME REMOVED] did a very good job as scaring the shit out of me before we left. At any given time, I was carrying at least three bottles of hand sanitizer and two bottles of water. I was sanitizing my hands so much I think people thought I had an obsessive-compulsive disorder.

The next morning, I went downstairs and asked the hotel how I could get a taxi to take me around Delhi. He pleasantly said that he would take care of everything, and walked outside. I thought he was going to flag down an rickshaw(a three-wheeled scooter). Instead, he slams the roof of a car parked outside, and up pops a formally sleeping head from the driver's seat. "Oh no"... I thought. I only wanted a cab to drive me around the city, to follow the Lonely Planet guide... I really didn't want to pay for a car and driver, but that's what I ended up doing. I got in the car (an Ambassador Classic... see the pics), and my driver Kareem, barely awake at this point, smiles and says "where to?" I tell him to show me all the sights of Delhi. He smiles, changes his shirt in the car, and we were off.

I knew about driving in Delhi. I had seen images of driving in Delhi. But still, nothing in the world prepares you for driving in Delhi. It has got to be one of the most exhilarating, terrifying, and panic-inducing activities in all of man. Bungee jumping is for pansies... skydiving is for sissies... I rode shotgun in Delhi!! The rode can be one or five lanes across, doesn't matter, as everyone shoves into every possible nook and crevice that can fit either a large truck, small car, autorickshaw, rickshaw, motorcycle, scooter, bicycle, or cow. And yes... I said cow. Several times we were actually touching other vehicles, while doing 60 kilometers an hour!! How there is not piles upon piles of bodies on the roads is beyond me! Once, while in an autorickshaw, I had to pull my arm into the window really quick because we were sideswiped by a bus! And the noise!! Dear God, the noise!! Every driver is constantly honking their horns. The don't honk in anger or frustration, but to let the people in front or to the side of them that they're coming closer... which is always! That was one thing that really got under my nerves was the never ending cacophony of horns blaring at all hours of the day.

While in Delhi, I saw a giant Hanuman (monkey-god statue), the Lotus Temple, the Quitab Minar Tower (800 years old), the Dehli Gate, Parliment, and the Red Fort. All of these places were stunningly beautiful. The size of the Red Fort was incredible! Huge red stone walls with a twenty meter deep moat that used to hold crocodiles, and this thing was built in the 1500s! Everywhere we stopped were the merchants pushing into me to try and sell me some such junk... postcards, whips, figurines... you name it. I did end up buying a used memory card off a ten-year-old kid for way too much money... but he had what I needed, and I had what he wanted. The whole time I kept my hands by my sides to stop any potential pickpockets. My driver kept shooing them away, and kept warning me about scams. "Don't give any money to anyone who says they are guides, carry your bag on your chest, and make sure not to accept any stickers about a school!" At the Quitab Minar Tower, a group of school kids kept following me around. I soon noticed that they weren't following any of the other westerners or Europeans that were there... just me. Finally, some came up to me and asked me for my autograph. Well what the hell do you say to that?! At first I said no, but they kept pestering me about getting my autograph, and then taking pictures with me! For the life of me, I had no idea about what was going on! Turns out, in the paper and news was a big story about a very famous American wrestler who was in town for a part in a Bollywood movie and a wrestling match. The kids saw a large American, and they thought I was him. The wrestler... Baptista. Google him... he's like my long lost twin.

After the Red Fort, Kareem got us a bicycle rickshaw (the driver looking thrilled when he saw my fat ass approaching) to guide us through Old Delhi. This part of Delhi has not changed... ever. The roads can only fit bicycles and people. Narrow storefronts selling colorful clothing and flowers lining every wall, the smell off street foods being cooked wafting through the air. Strange faces staring at me as an outsider. But along with the food smells was the smell of diesel fuel and soot, body odor and shit, sewage and animals. The air started to become stale and reeked. I realized later when I left Delhi that all of Delhi smells like that... but I had only really noticed the smell then. Power lines draped over each other into intricate cobwebs overhead. People were sleeping on the stained black concrete and gravel gutters. Half-naked kids played with stray dogs. This is what I had always thought Delhi was. Not an enormous, metropolitan city, but the squalor and filth of poverty. There is a strange balance with Delhi... the poor with the rich, the classes and the caste. Everyone shares the same space. You never really know where you are, but you never, ever, feel alone.

After an exhausting day out, I met up with [NAME REMOVED] and her friends at the Delhi Golf Club for some food and drinks... making sure not to each anything uncooked or anything that shared a plate with anything that was uncooked. Later I went back to my hotel and ordered a wake-up call for 3 a.m. to catch my train...

Agra... after I woke up and got ready, I went downstairs to get a ride to the train station. Yet another sleeping driver was awoken, and we took off. This driver, though, did not quite wake up fast enough. He pulled down an alley that was only about as wide as my hips, that was filled with cars on both sides, for about 500 meters. At the end, we found ourselves facing a locked gate. So, what any industrious driver would do, he tried ramming the gate... thankfully without success. So, he looked back at me, and started to go in reverse... at almost full speed. After the two motorcycles and three cars that he utterly destroyed (really, almost took the doors off our car), he turned down another road and took me to the train station.

The Delhi train station is large, stark, and scary as hell. At least a thousand people were scattered on the concrete, contorted and sleeping. Beggars with every known malady kept coming up with hands or stumps outstretched. I had prebought my tickets, so finding my platform was relatively easy. The train pulled in exactly on time, and I boarded the first class, air-conditioned, executive car for the two hour trip to Agra. Total cost of the train ride... $14.

As the train was about to set off, a very dapper dressed Indian man sat next to me and ordered his tea from the porter. He saw my guidebook and asked if it was my first time in India, and I said yes. He then took a minute to extol what a beautiful country India was, and that there was no other place like it in the world. The train then pulled out of the station, perfectly on time, and for the first twenty minutes, we moved at a walking pace out of the city. But not before I got to see about two-hundred men, women, and children crouched down in the fields, ditches, or next to the tracks to have their early-morning shit. Hundreds and hundreds of people just bending over and shitting in piles as far as the eye could see. Men crouching ass-to-ass with other men, shitting into the same pile. People would just disappear then pop up out of nowhere in the middle of fields and wipe their ass with their hands. The irony, or whatever you call it, of the gentleman telling me of the beauty of his country and the fact that I could actually see more than one man's asshole pushing out last nights lamb biryani was not lost on me. But that was India... wealth piled on top of the shit...

I was well-fed on the train, as the food was rated very safe by my guidebook. I ate something I have never had before in my life, but feel that I must share it with you. I ate Kellogg's Cornflakes with sugar... and steaming hot milk! If you have never had cereal with hot milk, you have no idea what you are missing! It's as if I had never had eaten before in my life... you must try it!

I arrived in Agra and was quickly bombarded by the smell of poverty. Trust me, you know it when you smell it. Then, the smell of flowers almost knocked me over. About fifty people were passing out orange blossom and lavender leis to everyone who got off the train. I thought it was a scam and tried to avoid it. But then I overheard a British couple talk about how lucky they were to make it to Agra on "World Tourism Day." Honestly, real thing!! I quickly paid for an all-day taxi and driver, and we headed to the one thing that brings people to Agra... the Taj Mahal.

The car could only drive about five kilometers, then it had to pull over. No engines are allowed within a kilometer of the Taj Mahal to prevent pollution damage. I then grabbed a rickshaw, and made my way through some backalleys that could only be described as sewers. Agra was filthy and bordered on disgusting. It was once the capital of India, but is now a decrepit city. Once I reached a roundabout, the rickshaw driver told to me walk about 500 meters down the road to the Southern Gate. Immediately, people started to flood the street, forcing trinkets upon me; pushing the hard sell. I felt a few hands go for my pockets, but I followed the rules and kept my hands in my pockets, while my daybag was strapped on my chest like a baby-carrier.

As I approached the gate, you could see a large, red wall was intersecting my path, with a small gate and some security guards. I paid to get in to the Taj (750 Rupees for tourists) and went to the security check. This was the most intense security check I have ever had the pleasure to go through. A metal detector, hand wand, then one guy not only pats you down, but gives you a hard squeeze across every inch of your body! They then emptied the entire contents of my bag on the table. I had to give up my cigarettes, lighter, and monopod. The guard kept saying that it was a tripod, but I explained to him that it was for my camera to hold in my hand, not on the ground. He then asked, "camera go here?" Yes. "Tripod. Not allowed." End of conversation. They even took my copy of The Hobbit (for train reading.) That was a fun conversation between the guards... "Hubbit??" "Yes, Hubbit... Hubbit... little man... little man... movie."

Once they let you in, you enter a beautifully landscaped garden, but no Taj. This in an entrance courtyard for the three gates. The large gate in front of me was a beautiful red inlaid with the same stones and scroll work that I had see in pictures of the Taj. As I walked up to the gate, marvelling at the site and the people, for the briefest of moments, I totally forgot what was through the next gate. As you enter the gate, it gets very dark, and the light from the far exit shines in and almost blinds you; making it impossible to see what's beyond. And then... you see it... and all comes into focus.

They say that you can't miss the Grand Canyon, because it is the one thing that doesn't disappoint you in real life. Well... neither does the Taj Majal. Words cannot describe the size and symmetry. The peaked domes and minarets, the brilliant white marble set up high about the surrounding area, giving it only a sky blue background...

It is considered the most beautiful building in the entire world... and it is. Just stunning. The only thing surprising is that it's fairly small on the insides, and there are two almost as beautiful buildings flanking the Taj Mahal. Had no idea...

Trying to write what it's like seeing it for the first time is almost impossible. I'll try to do it in person the next time I see everyone. It's almost indescribable.

I spent a few hours there, and later went to Agra Fort. About TEN TIMES the size of the Red Fort, this thing covers about twenty city blocks! It has 16 palaces inside, and once housed Akbar's 5000 concubines!! They even have their names and pay stubs! I later joked about the 5000 concubines with my driver... I told him I could barely handle my three concubines! At this point, I had see about all Agra had to offer. I went to see the Baby Taj (not very impressive after the real thing) and took some pictures from across the river. I had a nice lunch, bought some gifts (and a damn nice, and damn expensive rug) and decided to wait out the remaining four hours until my return train back to Agra at the train station... stupid mistake. The train station is not air-conditioned, has barely any seating, and was filled with beggars and what can only be called street-urchins... kids who would come up to you and yell at you until you gave them money. Thankfully, having grown up with four harpy-like sisters, they were no match for me. But the concrete floor, god-awful humidity, and foul stench was really starting to get to me. All this time, I have an iron grip on my bag at all times (plus a heavy, folded up rug). Suddenly, men in army uniforms flooded the station with about ten dogs. They were running up and down the platforms, yelling things back and forth, shoving people out of the way. I talked to a cabbie, and he said that a bomb went off near the Delhi airport, and that everything in the country was on high alert. Well, this snapped me back to attention. One day earlier, my phone went dead, and I had no way of checking on [NAME REMOVED]. So, now I was trapped in a disgusting train station, sweating beads of spice and stink-ladened sweat, figuring out whether my friend was OK, and whether or not we were going to be able to fly out the next morning. To be honest, at this point, I started to think India was really testing my resolve. That four hours was the most physically and emotionally draining period of time I went through in a long while. Night descending on the train station, and I was left as the only person waiting on the platform for a good hour. It never even dawned on me to go back to the Taj Majal to see it at sundown... dumbass. I got on the train (on time, again) and headed back to Delhi. Unfortunately, the train was stopped by the army and searched for about an hour. Everyone got off in Delhi and went out into the crowd of cabbies fighting for our fares.

Then I discovered I had a big problem... I lost my hotel card. Everyone carries the card of their hotel, because in a city of 21 million people, not everyone is going to know every location in town. I could not find anyone who knew my hotel, or even anywhere close. I finally found a guy who could take me to Karol Baugh, and I said "Karol Baugh, find the McDonalds." I knew my hotel was a few blocks from McDonalds from the map. He drove around and around the back alleys until we saw the golden arches, and I found my hotel.

Safely away, I was able to call [NAME REMOVED] and make sure she was OK. A bomb had killed a kid in a market in Old Dehli, the place where I was in the day before. At this point, I cleaned up with a bottled water shower and got packed up, ready to go. By the time I finished, it was already two a.m., and I had to be at the airport by four a.m.. So, I stayed up and watched some cricket matches, got my bag back on my back (rug included), and took an autorickshaw to the airport for my next adventure in India.

Ask me what I didn't write about... getting a cobra thrown at my face, my hotel bathroom, the other sleepy driver, the Ambassador Classic, floating houses, indoor rivers, one-bag travel, killing boulders, autorickshaw fatigue, temples on the golf course, train station lepers, how Asians love me, the marble factory, how I got my shirt, and Will Smith...

Part 2 to follow tomorrow...