John's Blog

Mehrangarh Fort

Mehrangarh Fort dominates the city of Jodhpur. Glance up from any location and the eye is drawn to its looming walls. Built by Jodhpur's founder Rao Jodha in 1459, it has served as the seat of a line of Maharajas down through the centuries. The present-day Maharaja lives in a corner of the place; the bulk of the fort has been converted into a museum. Today, as in many stately English homes, the nobility can't afford the upkeep on their estates, so they make a deal with their governments to undertake management of them in exchange for allowing tourist access.

We hired a tuk-tuk driver to take us to the castle gate. He waited for us while we visited.

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Jodhpur is sometimes called "the Blue City," and in this image you can see why. The pastel color that the buildings are painted is called "Maharaja Blue."

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The fort contains several palaces, most of which are open to the public. We inspected some of them over several hours, but we easily could have spent days here.

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Absolute masters of their realms, the Maharajas amassed incredible wealth. They not only ruled what were called the Princely States, they owned them outright. When the British colonized India, they simply co-opted the Maharajas, allowing them relative freedom to rule in exchange for oaths of fealty. This arrangement was good for the British, who didn't have to lay siege to their forts, and it was good for the Maharajas, who were able to continue to grow wealthier without interference. The only group that did not benefit from the relationship was the 99.99% of the population whose labors mainly benefited the rulers.

After independence, the new Indian government stripped the Maharajas of their lands, but kept them happy with generous stipends sufficient to maintain their opulent lifestyles. Indian nobility became a prominent element of jet set society. Indira Ghandi cut off support payments in the mid-seventies, with the result that many of their estates became open to the public.

The Maharajas lived in opulence. This is a living room. I like the umbrella over the sofa, there so that dust doesn't fall on noble heads. I'm considering adding one to my place.

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A nineteenth-century Maharaja traveled in splendor in his gilded palanquin. This one required twelve men to carry it.

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The fort covered something on the order of five square kilometers, and was actually needed for defense. The walls, six meters thick, bear scars from cannon fire, but the fort never fell to invaders.

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Spiked iron gates prevented enemies from battering their way into the redoubt.

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Be-turbaned guards once manned the ramparts and protected the nobles. Today they doze in corners of the museums, preventing priceless artifacts from walking off with light-fingered visitors.

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The family mausoleum crowns a hilltop a kilometer form the fort. The Taj Mahal is certainly more spectacular, but I am impressed that in India, so many of these palaces were built to hold the remains of local rulers and their families.

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Many of India's monumental buildings are crumbling. Not Mehrangarh Fort. Walls look scrubbed and re-gilded. Brasswork gleams. Masonry is being re-pointed.

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The scaffold these workers are using is typical of Indian construction sites. Scary.

The scrupulous maintenance is for the benefit not only of western tourists, of which there are quite a few, but to preserve the patrimony of the Indian people. This young woman is one of a growing number of Indian tourists. She's wearing bluejeans.

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Mehrangarh Fort and its palaces are reminders of the grossly uneven distribution of wealth in India. I was shocked when I first experienced the economic gap between rich and poor in Mexico and the rest of Latin America. In India, the situation is worse. A short walk from the fort gates, we were confronted with beggars living on the streets of Jodhpur in conditions more squalid than any I have seen in Mexico.

But even here, the First World and its riches are arriving; perhaps lowly, perhaps unevenly, but inexorably. That we ran into so many middle-class Indians touring their country is a sign of progress. They were not here in 1947, at the dawn of independence.

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Arriving in Jodhpur

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On our last day in Dharamsala, we breakfasted at a café owned by a theatrical Australian woman named Boom Boom. On hearing we were traveling to Jodhpur, she phoned friends who owned a haveli—once the luxurious home of a member of the Brahmin class—that had been converted into a hotel. She assured us that these reliable people would meet us at the train and provide a good room at a good price. Unfortunately, our train was very late. Due in at two in the morning, it straggled into the station at five. The haveli's driver was not waiting for us, but a gang of freelance taxi drivers was.

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Held at bay by a baton wielding Sikh policeman, the drivers pumped signs up and down, shouting the names of one hotel or another, hotels that would pay them commissions for the guests they snared. The intense competition among hotels had even reached us on the train, where touts plied the corridors, pressing flyers into our hands and haranguing us with promises of luxurious inns at rock-bottom prices. I had been warned that all places so promoted were dumps.

Edging past the surging line of drivers, we made our way to an independent tuk-tuk driver. Ignoring catcalls from the hawkers, we gave him the name of our haveli. He drove us through darkened streets, skirting cows asleep on the pavement. FInally we reached a towering wooden door set in a stone wall. He indicated that this place was our hotel.

No streetlights, no lit windows, no people about: the place was deserted. Our driver went up to the massive door and pounded on it. No response. He pulled out his cell phone and looked at us questioningly. We gave him the hotel number and he phoned. Several minutes later a small wooden window set within the great door opened. A sleepy face looked out. Its owner seemed to have no idea why we were there or what to do with us.

Eventually doorman admitted us, saying that no one was yet awake who could show us our room. Kicking two sleeping men off a pair of low divans, he asked if we'd like to sit and watch television for awhile.

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Why not? He brought us some Nescafé, and we settled onto the cushions to watch an incomprehensible Bollywood movie featuring cold war spies, a doomed romance, and endless frantic dancing. Two hours later, someone showed up and led us to our room. Finally we had a place to wash off travel grime and change into clean clothes.

The room was large, constructed of yellow sandstone blocks (as most of Jodhpur would turn out to be). Furniture consisted of an eclectic mix of old pieces. It was interesting, unique and comfortable.

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Portraits of long-dead maharajas hung on the walls. Oddly, a large photograph of a very young Queen Elizabeth II also hung there.

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Rooms were arranged around a once-elegant courtyard, a peaceful place for reading in the morning before the heat came up. We came to appreciate its tranquility, a retreat from the daytime bedlam just on the other side of the great door.

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We were hungry after eating only one meal that day—an execrable dinner on the train. The haveli owner steered us to a restaurant owned by a friend of his, a former cricket champion turned entrepreneur. Named Krishna, there we ate the finest meal served to us in India. The restauranteur joined us for our meal, entertaining us with stories about his life and family.

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We ate the foods he recommended. Our meal consisted of tikka masala (chunks of Indian cheese called paneer, in a red sauce loaded with spices), potatoes stuffed with vegetables, zeera rice, and naan, that wonderful flat bread baked by sticking flattened dough to the side of a clay oven called a tandoor.

I always enjoy eating regional cuisine wherever I'm traveling. Local food is usually excellent; foreign foods are iffy. In India, even fine hotels won't serve you steak (cows are sacred), and their attempts at Japanese or Chinese food fall flat. But a lowly roadside stand will cook you an aloo paratha (potato pancake) you'll remember for the rest of your life.

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The cost of our meal in this, one of the better restaurants in Jodhpur, was around ten dollars.

Now we were washed, rested, and fed. We were ready to go forth and experience the culture and sights of north-western India, in the state of Rajasthan.

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Riding the Train to Jodhpur

Travelers can choose from up to eight classes of travel on Indian Railways. Actually there's a ninth class, shown below, but it's available only in the vicinity of large cities like Bombay. We did not choose to travel this way, even though it's free.

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Photo found on the web.

I never saw people riding on top of trains, although I did see a few riding on top of highway buses. Good thing there are no topes (speed bumps) in India.

We had two objectives in taking the fifteen hour overnight train to Jodhpur. We wanted to see the Indian countryside outside of cities and tourist stops. And we wanted contact with ordinary Indian people. To achieve our second goal, we opted for cheap seats: a second class sleeper without air conditioning. The decor in our car was like Alcatraz in the '50s: gray vinyl benches that doubled as bunks, huge industrial-grade fans bolted to the ceiling, heavy steel bars on the windows. The latter protected us from thieves who apparently might try to enter our car during the night.

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Grime covered the coaches inside and out. Drifts of desert dust coated our bunks. Handrails were encrusted with a sticky layer of gunk deposited by thousands of dirty hands. No porters would be making up our beds; we brought our own blankets and used our backpacks for pillows. Backpacks make serviceable if uncomfortable headrests. More importantly, sleeping with luggage keeps it from disappearing in the night, something that we were told happens all too often.

Our coach was first in line behind the engine, an undesirable location, because the engineer blew the horn almost continuously. Not honk, honk, honking, but uninterrupted blasts that lasted for minutes at a time. I knew better than to think the honking was a cultural quirk. I finally realized the Indian countryside isn't fenced, and sacred cows wander everywhere. The horns warn them away from the track.

Our compartment contained eight bunks. Upper berths were folded up during the day, providing seating not only for the eight legitimate ticket holders, but numerous other passengers who boarded at one stop and got off at another, avoiding the conductor.

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We occupied our space with an ever-changing set of companions. They shared food with us—home-cooked delicacies we were advised not to sample, but did anyway. We distributed our granola bars, cashews and mango leather in exchange. The compartment took on the aspect of a temporary home; our companions an ad hoc family.

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Whenever we stopped at a station, the stench of the bathrooms would seep into our compartment. Note to self: When choosing seats, go for the middle of the coach, not the end near the latrines.

Four of them occupied the space upwind from our compartment. One was western style with a sit-down stool, although one wouldn't want one's skin to come into contact with it. The other three were squatters. All toilets emptied directly onto the tracks.

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The yellow encrustation at the top of the photo is crystallized urea. India Railways toilets aren't often cleaned.

In the western bathroom, a stenciled sign echoed the Raj with a sniffy British-style message.

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Vendors ply the corridors, most notably the chai-wallah, with his large thermos of milky sweet tea. I developed a liking for it. A shoeshine boy ran alongside the train as it slowed for a stop. During this trip, I was offered scores of shoeshines—more than any other service.

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In Europe and Japan, railway rolling stock looks crisp and shiny. In India, deterioration is everywhere. Equipment looks worn, but sometimes appears picturesque for all the wear.

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Rarely did I see places without people. India has more than a billion citizens in a country little more than a third the size of the United States—maybe eight times the population density. Lots of them don't have shoes.

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Many live in poverty. Here, a couple of families live in tents constructed on the railroad right-of-way.

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They perhaps are more fortunate than this cowherd who lives unsheltered in a field with animals.

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Conical structures are common sights. They are covered in thatch made from rice straw. This one shelters cattle feed. Others serve as tiny houses.

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Rice is the main staple crop. That so much of the production is done with manual labor is remarkable. The woman at the top of the image is threshing rice by swinging her bundle of stalks over her head and beating it on a blanket.

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More rice straw is produced than can be consumed as animal feed, especially in a country of so many vegetarians. So fields are burned to ready them for new crops, just as they are near Sacramento in California. We breathed smoke for hours.

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Every so often, we saw rice straw being used as fuel to fire bricks. Indians make bricks the same way Mexicans do—by hand. Women in saris squat in clay pits and force wet clay into molds. After drying, they carry raw bricks to huge kilns like this one. Smokestacks are another common feature of the countryside.

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Visitors to our compartment broke the monotony of rice fields and brick factories. At one point, a group of armed soldiers joined us. I tried to ignore the Mauser jabbing me in the ribs. This infantryman insisted I take his picture.

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We became tired and sleepy as the day wore on. A man took orders for dinner: an aluminum tray containing dal, rice, vegetables and soggy nan. And a tub of curd. I managed t spread mine all over my lap, the seat and our end of the compartment. But I ate it all. We'd been on the train for nine hours and had long since consumed all of the food we'd brought with us—as well as that of our companions.

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Then it was time for sleep. Bunks were lowered, suspended from heavy chains. Seasoned indian travelers broke out blankets and pillows. I wrapped myself in a small, inadequate Etihad Airways microfiber lap blanket and rested my head on my backpack, my laptop digging into my neck. Inches from my face, a huge, grimy fan roared. I stared at a pair of shoes someone had left on top of it. The train rocked. The horn blew. The bathrooms reeked. I fell into a sound sleep, waking up just outside Jodhpur.

Morning brought one last discovery about Indian people. They hawk and spit. Horrible guttural sounds erupted all around me. Phlegm flew out of doorways and windows. Hacking, throat-clearing, snorting, gargling, sniffing, snorting—the din was incredible. It went on for a half hour. It was comical. I had to suppress my laughter. This morning ritual was one of the truly noteworthy aspects of traveling with several hundred Indians.

You had to be there.

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Departure from Pathankot Junction

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One of the best ways to tour India is by train. By air, you really can't see anything, and trains will often get you to your destination as fast as India's hub-and-spoke air traffic system where, if you want to go between any two cities, you usually have to connect through Delhi.

We wanted to travel from Dharamsala to Jodhpur, fifteen hours away. We decided to book a sleeper train, saving a night's stay in a hotel, and enjoying a few hours looking out at the Indian countryside. Seemed like a good idea at the time.

Our first step was to secure reservations and tickets. We bought ours through a travel agent in Dharamsala who managed to make errors in our tickets. Examining the tickets he gave us, we found we had not been given the seat assignments we had asked for. Would he fix the problem? He told us this was not possible. We would have to present our tickets in person at the railway booking office to straighten things out. For us, this meant an encounter with Indian bureaucracy. Not good.

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We arrived at the Computerised Railway Reservation Centre/Center/Centrr and explained out problem. Could the agent help us?

"No."

(This is as good a time as any to introduce a precept of Indian public service: The proper response to any request is "no." The task of the supplicant then is to find some way to turn "no into "yes." You must learn how to play this game or you'll get nowhere in India.)

"Why not?"

"The computer is down."

"What's the problem? Is the power out?"

"Yes. We don't know when it will resume. Come back later."

(Note how we skillfully managed to get a "yes" out of the ticket agent. This is how to make progress. Now that the agent had been introduced to the idea of saying "yes," there was a chance he would eventually resolve our problem.)

"But it's 1:30. In an hour, your office will be closed."

"Yes. (another score!) You must come back at ten minutes before two. Otherwise the office will be closed."

At 1:50 we returned. Computer screens were glowing. We explained the error in our seat assignments. Could he change them for us?

"No."

"What's the problem?"

"You must present proper forms. Three of them. One to cancel your previous tickets with the seat assignments you no longer want, and one for each of you to purchase new tickets with the seat assignments you now want."

"Can't you just move us?"

"This is not possible. Completely new tickets are required. Here. Fill these out."

He provided us with three lengthy and obscure forms. We began to fill them out. Passport number. Indian visa number. Origin address. Destination address. Permanent address. Date of birth. Marital status. Number of convictions for crimes committed in India...

The clock was ticking. At two, we returned to the window with semi-completed forms. At that point, two Korean Buddhist nuns shoved in front of us. The agent addressed their needs. We could see our precious ten-minute window before closing time disappearing.

(Days later, we learned one of the rules of Indian queue discipline: Any unaccompanied woman may push her way into the head of the line with impunity. This rule exists to offset the shabby way Indian women are treated in all other aspects of their lives.)

Mercifully, the ticket agent dealt quickly with the nuns, and, inconveniencing himself, continued to help us after two o'clock, a true mercy. Our forms were painstakingly checked. Computers were consulted. Brows furrowed. The agent discovered that our new tickets would cost marginally less than the old ones. This meant yet another form would be required to make a refund.

Could we skip the refund? "No." More scribbling. More checking. Money grudgingly returned. Finally we were handed our new tickets. We examined them closely. They appeared to be correct.

Turns out they weren't, as we shall see.

The next day, we hired a driver for the three-hour car ride to the railroad station closest to Dharamsala: Pathankot Junction. We arrived on time, only to find that the train was late. Nobody knew why.

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Masses of people sat resignedly on benches or on their capacious luggage, waiting. No one seemed surprised or concerned about the delay.

So we had time to look around the station. We saw Sikh soldiers providing security. India is on high alert after extremists burned a train full of religious pilgrims. We had become accustomed to the heavy presence of the Transportation Security Administration at US airports, but the mood in India is much more serious. This is a country that could go to war over a simple misunderstanding.

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The stationmaster at Pathankot provided another glimpse into the officious world of Indian bureaucracy.

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Among the minimum essential aminities (sic) we found there is a deficiency in latrine seats. Tough on the ladies, but then that's true of most things in India. On a positive note the station boasts one more urinal than required. Of course.

Another bureaucrat, one P. Shankar, the Central Vigilance Commissioner, had horned in on the stationmasters turf, asking passengers to tattle on station personnel if they ask for bribes. Yeah, right. Do that. If you never want to go to Jodhpur again.

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A yellow kiosk sat on the platform. The lettering on it spelled no words; only abbreviations. Indian bureaucracy seems to have a special affinity for abbreviations. I stared uncomprehending at the kiosk. Finally I noticed a stylized telephone icon at the upper left. The place was a public phone both. A manned one. The Hindu standing in front of it is filling out a form, apparently required if you want to make a phone call.

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Several trains were visible when I peered down the track, but none were ours. An hour went by. Then another.

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Finally I heard an insistent blare from the horn of a diesel locomotive. (Yes, engineers here drive with their horns, just as motorists do.) Our train had arrived. We found our car and boarded it. We went to our seats and sat in them. Suddenly an Indian man wearing a canary yellow shirt came up and yelled at us. We were in his seat! We had to move!

We showed him our ticket, which matched the seats we were sitting in. "No Good!" he yelled. "These are not your seats!" He showed us his ticket. His printed seat assignments had been crossed out, replaced with new ones written in shaky handwriting. "You have to see the conductor," he shouted. "All seats have been reassigned."

Seeing that we didn't believe him, and that we wouldn't know what to do if we did believe him, and that yelling was getting him nowhere anyway, he calmed down and helped us find the conductor. A half hour of arguing and we were moved to a different compartment that at least had suitable seats. Without help from the yellow shirted man, we would have been assigned separate compartments, if not separate cars.

So much for our efforts at the Computerised Railway Reservation Centre/Center/Centrr.

The delays, bureaucracy and confusion hardly dampened my enthusiasm. The last time I had ridden a long distance train was during the Second World War. My father had somehow obtained a compartment on a Pennslyvania Railroad train from Philadelphia to Minneapolis despite wartime restriction on passenger travel. At only four years of age, I went to visit my grandma halfway across the country. I barely remember red plush bunks and white coated porters making up our sleeper compartment. That was a great adventure, and I expected the overnight train to Jodhpur to be one too.

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Driving in India

You think driving in Mexico is tough? Let me tell you: Compared with driving in India, Mexico—with its potholes, topes, livestock sleeping on the roads, slow vehicles without taillights, lack of shoulders and voracious cops—is a cakewalk. To a foreigner observing Indian traffic for the first time, there seems to be only one rule of the road: Blow Your Horn.

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The drivers we hire blow their horns constantly. So do all the drivers surrounding us, pressing in on all sides. The din is overwhelming and nerve wracking.

Having been here for a while, I realize that horn blowing replaces rear view mirrors, turn signals and right-of-way laws. A blast on the horn establishes precedence. With a honk, a driver serves notice on those around him that he intends to pass or turn or accelerate, and therefore it is the duty of other drivers or pedestrians to avoid him.

Indian drivers wear out horns. I saw a mechanic's sign that advertised: "Horns Re-Cored."

In India they drive on the left. Sort of. Unless they blow their horns, in which case they can drive anywhere they want. When driving in England, I've always found adjusting to left-hand driving difficult. Left turns become easy, right turns are hard because of oncoming traffic. Glancing up to the right to check the mirror before making a quick lane change doesn't work—the mirror's not there. It's over on the left. Trying to make such adjustments in the chaos of Indian traffic would be close to impossible.

My advice to anyone thinking about renting a car in India? Don't.

For one thing, you have the sacred cow problem. Cows wander unmolested anywhere they want to. They're used only for milk, not for meat, so they breed and their numbers increase to the limits of the available food supply. It's considered bad form to run over one. So when Bossie gets in your way, what do you do?

You blow your horn.

But cows have heard horns all their lives. They're unmoved by insistent honking. So drivers mostly wait until cows amble off to the side of the road.

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One of our drivers came upon a cow lying across the road, chewing its cud. Honking didn't work. The driver got out and kicked it a couple of times. The cow lay there placidly chewing. Finally the driver grabbed it's tail and gave it a mighty twist, annoying the animal enough to make it clear the road.

Road conditions offer another challenge. Most roads between cities are only two lanes. Or fewer. Most are worn out. Within cities, the infrastructure is crumbling.

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Attempts to repair roads create unbelievable traffic jams. Here we see a backhoe and a steamroller blocking the main road through Dharamsala. Three policemen in berets attempt to straighten out the mess—to no avail.

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The few good roads are those leading up to the border with Pakistan. Those are maintained by the army as a matter of national defense.

The only reasonable way to get around on is to hire some form of transport. Horrible, overcrowded buses are cheap. Various kinds of taxis—cabs or vans and jeeps that work like Mexico's colectivos—are more common than private cars. Hiring a driver and a comfortable car for long-distance travel is surprisingly inexpensive. We hired one for the nine-hour drive from Delhi to Dharamsala for around $200.

Hailing a cab at the Delhi airport requires wits and caution. Reports of tourists being kidnapped and robbed are common. Even more common, drivers pretend to call your hotel, informing you that that it has no rooms available for you. Then they take you to a shabby, overpriced place operated by a confederate. Overwhelmed (and perhaps conniving) airport police have been unable to rectify the situation.

One of the least expensive private cabs is the auto rickshaw, sometimes called (as in Thailand) the tuk-tuk. Polluting and grossly unsafe, you can get a ride in a town or city for 20 Rupees and up—less than 50¢. They slice through congestion much better than full-sized vehicles.

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Tuk-tuks are crude. Some are largely homemade. To start his rickshaw, our driver tilted his seat forward to expose the motor, wound a rope around a pulley, and yanked—like an old-fashioned power mower.

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Drivers veer in and out of traffic, exploiting any opening, coming dangerously close to other vehicles. Walking along the narrow roads of Dharamsala, I was twice struck by side-view mirrors.

Last year India surpassed China as the country with the most traffic fatalities: 150,000. Over 85% of those killed were pedestrians. Requiring completion of a drivers course before being given a driver's license is one attempt to reduce the carnage.

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Judging from the drivers I observed, I imagine the training course must consist primarily of weaving and horn-blowing.

One contributor to the fatality rate is inferior vehicles. Coming down the mountain in a tuk-tuk one night, I was unnerved to note that ours had no battery, so whenever the engine slowed, the lights dimmed to virtual invisibility.

In fact, vehicles with disk brakes and power steering are considered hazardous when operated by drivers unused to them. I saw many newer cars with warning signs on the dashboards. Caution! This vehicle actually works!

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Bumper stickers warn following drivers if the truck ahead has good brakes. Really.

In towns, slow traffic is the norm. Handcarts, bicycle rickshaws, milling pedestrians, stray dogs and sacred cows add up to a lot of congestion. Oxcarts are not uncommon. This water carrier is being drawn by a camel. (A dripping hose trailing behind provides a boy with a drink.)

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India is one of the most chaotic and noisy places I have visited. Driving conditions contribute significantly to the confusion. I frequently have to take time out to recover from moments of near-panic or frustration or exhaustion from what should be a simple act of getting from one place to another.

It's hard to imagine how people accept such conditions as a way of life.

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McLeod Ganj

In the old British hill station of McCeod Ganj, I am as much in Tibet as in India. Billboards for Indian Companies like Airtel and Tata hang over streets crowded with Tibetan refugees and their descendants. A Tibetan Buddhist temple barely manages to rise above the traffic, the signs, and the power lines.

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Temples are open to the public most of the time. Interiors are ornate and colorful. This one is in the monastery of His Holiness Gyalwang Karmapa, an important spiritual leader in his early twenties. I find it remarkable that someone so young is regarded as a sage whose wisdom is believed to eclipse that of monks three times his age. He has visited many countries (under tight security) and has dazzled the Buddhist world with his knowledge and erudition.

The temple interior shown below is typical: gilding, statues of the Buddha, relics, benches for meditating monks, a dozen priceless thangkas hanging overhead.

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Walk near any Tibetan refugee settlement and you'll find piles of prayer stones. Most are inscribed with prayers for compassion and enlightenment. Some bear the symbol for the mantra Om, the syllable many of us Californians chanted during our counterculture years, ignorant of its meaning.

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We hike mountain trails, well away from villages. From time to time we come upon simple stupas, no more than rough piles of stones, surrounded by firs festooned with prayer flags.
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Prayer flags bear messages of peace, compassion, strength, and wisdom in the belief that these will be blown by the wind throughout the world.
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I am taking some classes at the Tibetan Library, on the subject of ancient Tibetan Buddhist texts. I am not a Buddhist, but I am curious. Our teacher is a wizened senior monk named Ghenma who lectures in Tibetan. He is considered to be a great master, and indeed he is one of those rare individuals whose face radiates enlightenment. An Englishwoman named Ruth has been translating for Ghenma for thirty years. They have an easy relationship, sometimes bantering back and forth. Occasionally Ruth scolds Ghenma for being obscure.
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Classes begin when Ghenma enters the room. We all make three prostrations. Then Ruth leads us in ten minutes of chanting in Tibetan. We use phonetic chant books to make it through this ritual. Then Ghenma lectures, his smiling face animated. We are studying the 18th chapter of Nagarjuna's Treatise on the Middle Way. I am pretty much lost, comprehending only snippets of the subject matter.

Class ends with more chanting. Then the subject shifts to something I better understand—lunch. The library offers a healthy vegetarian meal for students, buffet-style. I go into an anteroom of the kitchen and ladle food out of cooking pots onto my plate. The lunch pictured below consists of yellow lentil soup, sauteed vegetables and potatoes, rice with green beans and carrots, and steamed Tibetan bread. (Nomadic people usually don't have ovens so sometimes they steam bread instead of baking it.) The drink is hot: lemon, honey and fresh ginger.
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Food in India is inexpensive. This meal is cheap even by Indian standards: All you can eat for 25 Rupees—about 60¢.

In Dharamsala as in Lhasa, China is the great Satan. Bitterness at Chinese occupation of Tibet runs high. So shopkeepers and restaurant owners declare their allegiance to reassure their clientele.
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Covering all the bases, the sign is written in English, Hindi and Tibetan.

Although English is widely spoken in India, it remains a second language for most Indians and all Tibetans. Malapropisms abound. From a menu: "babby potatoes, minched fresh vegetables, fresh tomatoes with smashed basil." The sign under the prayer wheels meant to say that "defaulters will be prosecuted under law."
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Just as San Miguel de Allende with its large influx of Norteamericanos and tourists is not the real Mexico, Dharamsala is not the real India. This Himalayan town is full of red-robed monks, shopkeepers selling malas (prayer beads), and hip twentysomething Tibetan youths romancing blond girls, hoping to find tickets out of this way station—into the freedom and opportunity of the west.

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Monks

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McCleod Ganj (Upper Dharamsala) serves not only as the seat of the Tibetan Government in Exile and as a center for the preservation of Tibetan culture, It is also the center of Tibetan Buddhism. The Dalai Lama (left) has his monastery here, and serves as the spiritual leader as well as the political leader of his people. Many other monasteries and convents are situated in Dharamsala as well, so thousands of monks and nuns live here.

In Christian denominations, monks are usually cloistered. A monastery near San Miguel de Allende houses perhaps a hundred monks who maintain vows of silence and live spartan lives. I never see their robed figures in town; only when I visit the monastery, and even then I cannot talk with them, except under limited circumstances.

For this reason, I was surprised to run into so many monks out on the streets of McCleod Ganj.

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They're out running all kinds of errands, just like lay people do. Here, a nun buys momos: steamed dumplings filled with potato. (Momos are excellent walking-around food. I bought some from the same vendor and developed an instant liking for them.)

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An elderly monk and his friend spin mani wheels (prayer wheels) at the Dalai Lama's monastery, so sending prayers and wishes for compassion throughout the world.

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Monks wear red robes, usually with yellow scarves. The rest of their dress is highly individual. The old monk above is wearing Teva sandals; below, loafers and Crocs are the choices. They wear digital watches and talk on cell phones. They write their friends in cybercafes. They ride scooters. They shop for boxer shots and batteries. They play basketball. They're just like us, except they have taken vows of celibacy and live in dormitories.

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They do their own laundry, here in a mountain stream. You can make out a group on the right playing cards while their clothes dry.

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Monks are accessible and friendly. I met this ancient figure while hiking a steep mountain path. He invited me to rest with him and agreed to have his picture taken with me. His three words of English were hello, goodbye, and cold, but his demeanor and smile spoke volumes.

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The Indian Government provides security at sites where high Tibetan figures live. I found it unsettling to watched monks engaged in friendly conversation with soldiers carrying assault rifles. This guard is one of the detachment protecting the monastery of the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa, an important spiritual leader who some think may ultimately succeed the current Dalai Lama.

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The soldiers shield a way of life as well as the lives of certain individuals. They protect an old monk feeding bananas to a mule with deformed legs. Both live peacefully in the confines of a monastery.

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Tibetan Buddhist monks live lives with an overriding goal: to end suffering of all beings. Unlike many Christian monastics, they live in intimate contact with the outside world. In fact, for them, there is no outside world. They believe all beings are connected, all beings are one. They sit in contemplation on bus stop benches as readily as if they were in a temple.

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Side note: In Lhasa, the capitol of Chinese-occupied Tibet, when important western officials visit, cadres (local Chinese political officials) dress up in red robes in order to give the impression of religious freedom. Real monks avoid wearing robes since by doing so they risk arrest and torture.

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Booking a Flight to India

The trouble began when, while at the beach with Paul, I found I had to change my flight date. Foolishly, I had booked through Expedia—the online travel agent. Expedia's change policy appears to be: Make things as difficult as possible for the customer.

I called from a pay phone at the Port of Manzanillo. Turns out Expedia's 800 number, posted on their website, is wrong. Paul helped me complete my call using a Telmex operator, his Spanish being better than mine. I took over as soon as we got an answer and spent five minutes picking my through a labyrinthine call director. Carlos Slim's exorbitant charges were piling up fast. Finally an automated voice told me I had passed the keypad dexterity test and now qualified to speak with an actual human agent.

An accented female voice came on the line. Things had finally come full circle. In order to change my flight to India on an American airline through an American travel agent, I was going to have to speak with someone in—India.

She spoke with the same cadences as Apu, owner of the Kwik-E-Mart in The Simpsons. I couldn't understand most of what she said. When I finally convinced her I wanted to move my flight dates back a week, she said, "Thank you for sharing your issue. I am most anxious to help you, but I cannot at the present moment. Our computers are down. Please call back in an hour." Click.

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Photo and lettering: Paul "El Guapo" Latoures

That exchange having exhausted my phone card balance, I retreated to an Oxxo (Mexico's Kwik-E-Mart) to purchase another. Not believing the computer problem story, I called Expedia right back, swiftly threading my way through the call director. (I am nothing if not a quick learner.) This time I was connected with an agent who spoke intelligible English and had had some actual training. A mere thirty minutes later, she completed the rebooking of my flights.

Bangalore call centers manage to combine Indian hyper-courtesy with Indian hyper-bureaucracy. At every turn I was told most politely, and with the most sympathy, why it was that I couldn't do what I wanted. Indian agents are masters at the art of saying "no." In Suketu Mehta's superb book about Bombay, Maximum City, he describes the place as the City of No. Indians learned obstructive bureaucracy under British rule. After independence, they took all that red tape and multiplied it. Example: A simple court case can take ten years to settle, if it ever gets settled at all.

Before I find myself teeing off on Indians, I have to remind myself: I was dealing with an American company. What were they thinking?

Something good has come from this experience: A new travel tip. Use Expedia to explore flight options. Then go to the airline website and book your flight directly. You'll save a few bucks, and if you need help, the airline has a much larger incentive to help you out than any travel agent ever will. And most of them don't use offshore call centers either.

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