Sunday, April 27, 2014

Full Frontal Fuji

The alarm goes off at 6AM. It's too late. Both Barbara and I are already up. My body is still not quite sure what's going on with this time change. We get ready and head to breakfast. The apple juice here is...extraordinary. I'm not quite sure what it is that makes it that way. It may be just a different apple type that they juice. I don't know. Barbara had some the previous couple of days and I finally tried it. I should just learn to listen to my wife more.

I think it's about time we covered a topic that needs to be addressed. Toilets. There are a couple different toilets here; Our standard western toilets and the squat toilets. We've experienced the squat toilet while wandering around China. Every hotel we've stayed in, regardless of country, have had standard western toilets...until now. There is nothing standard about the western toilet here in Japan. They take it to the next level. The come with all kinds of upgrades and amenities. The one we have here in the hotel will wash you. You can choose the level of water pressure to use and it thankfully uses warm water. Ours has two different washing options; Bidet or Spray. It is a very strange sensation. I, myself
Our Bathroom Command & Control Center
prefer the Bidet.

Barbara has obviously experienced more variations on these wonders of modern science. She tells me tales of buttons that will make flushing noises for you without you wasting water flushing (to cover up any sounds you want to cover). Some of them have adjustments for water temperature and even a drying button. On Mount Fuji, she tells me the toilet seats are warmed for you.

That being covered, we move on. Down to the lobby we head to hook up with the tour to Mount Fuji & Hakone. We are going to drive to Fuji-san by bus and head back by bullet train! Turns out to be a large group. Very large. Like 5 busloads of people large. I guess this is a popular tour. I understand a little better now when they said that this was fully booked for yesterday.

On the two hour drive out our guide, Ami, tells us all about Mt Fuji. She tells us about the different local prefectures of Japan. She tells us about which fruits come from what prefecture and in what month. She continues to bombard us with information for quite some time. I can't catch even half of it. And in case I missed any of this information, she covers it all again several more times. I still miss much of it. She then leads us in a song about Mt Fuji. I'm pretty sure I sang this in Japanese class with Hasagawa-Sensei.

As we get into the mountains we are actually greeted with something that I thought we had missed; Cherry Blossoms. They only bloom a short while during the spring months. It is a big thing here in Japan to view the cherry blossoms. In Tokyo, that time has already passed. However, due to the slightly colder climate we are getting into, the trees are blossoming just for us. Both Barbara and I are thrilled to get to see them as we had already made peace with missing them entirely.
Cherry Blossoms
Mount Fuji is divided into stations with station 0 at the bottom of the mountain and station 10 as the summit. There is a road going up to station 5 that is open as soon as enough snow has left the mountain. We are told on the way to Fuji-san that until yesterday at 1pm, the road was only open to station 1. However, the season has started and Station 5 is now open for business. If we had actually gotten on the tour yesterday, we would only have gotten to station 1. But, we get to head up today! That's the universe smiling on us.

There was some decent cloud cover today that is most likely going to cover the upper reaches of Mt Fuji. The weather is a fickle thing and mountains can be pretty shy. Our first glimpses of the mountain shows exactly that. We can see both slopes going up, but, the clouds cover the upper cone. We pass through station 3 and BAM! the clouds part and we get a great shot of Mt. Fuji. Our driver pulls off to the side of the road for some pictures. You can't wait when a mountain decides to come out to dance. I have not fully checked all of the photos yet, but if they are half as good as what I was seeing, they should be pretty magnificent.
Fuji-San
We can't stay long on the side of the road as we have a schedule to keep. So, we pile back on the bus and continue our journey up the mountain. We make it to station five and I am thrilled for a couple things; First, the clouds are still staying out of our way and giving us stunning views of this renowned peak. Second, I brought a sweater. It's COLD up here!!!

Seems like no time at all passes and it's time to leave. Back in the bus and heading down the winding road. By the time we reach station 2, the clouds have rolled all the way back in. It was like they got out of the way just for us. I sure do appreciate it.

Our next stop is a river cruise on the Ashi river. Well, they call it a cruise. It's a 15 minute ferry ride. Other than the scenery, it was exactly that; A 15 minute ferry ride. That 'cruise' took us to the base of Mt. Komagatake, a volcanic cone of the Hakone mountain range. We get onto a gondola for a trip up to the summit. The views from the tram ride were nice. The colors of the trees were pretty varied. There were several trees of mountain cherry blossoms that spotted the landscape with their white flowers to add a splash of color to the various greens of the trees. At the summit of the mountain sits a Shinto Shrine.
Mountaintop Shrine
Not too much time is allowed for us to wander around on the top of the mountain. But, there's not really much to do except take photos and congratulate yourself for summitting. Seeing as we took a tram up, there's no point in celebrating. But, we did take some photos. At the base of the tram we have to wait for another car to bring the rest of our group back down, so we head into one of the local shops that is known for their woodworking. Spectacular! I could have spent quite a bit of time and money admiring some of the intriacate inlay work that was done in that shop. We picked up a couple things and I told the man behind the counter I thought his work was beautiful.

With the rest of our group down from the summit, we get back on the bus and head off for our final part of the tour; The bullet train back to Tokyo. What took 2 hours to drive to will take less than 37 minutes to return from. Oh, and it runs about $37. Why the hell is Amtrack so expensive?!? It's just a damned train on a track. This is a bullet train. Oh, and it was first put into service in 1964...fifty years ago in October. Not like it's new technology. Stupid Amtrack.

I would love to say that riding the train was different than any other train. But, it's not. Oh, it's fast alright. But, it's just a fast train ride. I do so appreciate that we didn't have to go back by bus...that was an option on the tour for $30 less. As we arrive into Tokyo station, we get off the train and head off to find a magic land that our tour guide told us about today; Ramen Street. It's apparently in the basement of the train station. There are many, many ramen shops that people supposedly stand in line in order to get in.

After quite a few bad turns and poor directional decisions, we find exactly what we are looking for, Ramen Street location achieved! Sure enough, there are several shops with Disneyland like lines to get in. Seriously, there's one line that had 'approximate wait times'. It went back to just about an hour wait to get in and eat ramen. We were too hungry for an hour. So, we wandered a bit. We finally found one that had a line that we felt we could handle. However, ordering was going to be interesting...
I can take your order...


That's the ordering vending machine. No waiter asking to take your order. No, you buy tickets for the meal you want and then wait in the line until there is a seat available for you. Then you hand the staff your tickets and he eventually brings you the food. Well, we got a couple bowls of ramen and a plate of gyoza. Faith in the ramen producing humanity is restored! Friends, this is the ramen we were told about. This was the ramen of our dreams. This. Is. Ramen. We actually ordered 'dipping' ramen. So, they gave us a bowl of the broth and another bowl filled with noodles. We were a bit stumped as to exactly what to do (we didn't know we ordered 'dipping' ramen at the time). Luckily for me, Barbara has very little shame in her game. She pulled the guy who sat us over and asked how to eat it. He smiled and nodded and told us to get some noodles and move them over into the broth. Eat those. That ramen will live in my dreams...

It was way past time to head back to our hotel, so we begin to head back to our hotel to call it a night...just after we pick up a couple of these delicious looking pastries from a shop here in the basement.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Subway Shopping

So, we have no plans for today. We sleep in until 7:15am. Head down...or up...to breakfast at the top of the hotel and prep for the day's activities. We plan to head down to Asakusa to do a little shopping. That will require us to figure out the subway system. At breakfast we are sat at window seats which give us a view of the Japanese gardens that are attached to the hotel. After seeing it from this height, we decide that we are going to stroll through the gardens before doing anything.

The gardens were initially landscaped in 1603 for a local samurai lord and have been kept up since then. We spend quite a bit of time wandering the gardens. They are pretty awesome. There's a fairly large waterfall here and many, many large koi. Heck, there's even a tepenyaki restaurant in the middle of the gardens. But, at $150 a person for dinner, we're going to pass.

After the gardens, we head out to brave the subway system. The ticket machines are easy to navigate (as they have an English button that switches languages). We get a pair of day passes and jump on the train. The train is pretty full, but, not nearly what you imagine. There are no 'pushers' shoving people onto the train. There's plenty of room to stand and I don't feel that my personal space is violated in any way. Several stops later we are at our destination and spend several hours going from shop to shop browsing and buying.

Imagine several paragraphs of all the shopping we did. Excellent. We're a touch hungry by this time (all that shopping takes a toll on the body) so we look around for something to dine on. Barbara's eyes light up when we spot a sushi-go-round. This was something that she REALLY wanted to find and try. You sit at the bar as plates of sushi pass by on a conveyor belt. You take what you want and you pay for what you eat by the color of the plate that you pick up. I have to say, that was pretty awesome. There's a constant stream of food passing by that you can just eat your fill with.

As we are heading to a department store at the end of the street (which we were told by our guide yesterday would have one of the items we are looking for), we stop to look at some goods at a shop. One of the ladies working there begins to show off the stores goods and we decide to buy a couple of them. Barbara starts talking up the lady behind the counter (who seems to be the owner) and we find out that her son went to Los Angeles many years ago to go to school at the San Diego University. I think she remembers that her son 'flew' to LAX in order to get to whichever of the schools he attended. At any rate, they go back and forth talking about various tid-bits that she remembered her son telling her about and then she tells us that we should take a couple more items free of charge...for us. She's extremely handy, that wife of mine.

The department store that we head into is much different than our department stores. Each 'department' is actually a different store. There's a book department, a craft department, several different apparel departments, even a fabric department. But, they all have their own employees and registers. Many times there are not even walls between the different departments.

We head back towards our hotel on the subway and stop off at a pub that we saw last night for a couple of drinks. We figure we could use a little break before dropping off our purchases and then heading out for dinner. We make the decision to head out for shabu-shabu. Barbara got the recommendation from someone who said we MUST try it. According to my very limited research, it's similar to fondue. We know the name of a place in the local neighborhood, so, we head out to find it. Well, we don't find it. This place apparently does not have its name on the sign in roman characters, only kanji. Hell, I didn't know all that many kanji symbols when I was actively learning the language. So, I sure wont be able to find it after 20 years.

We wander around looking for something that pulls us in. We find a different shabu-shabu place. They are booked for the evening. We wander on until we find a small ramen house. Perfect! That's on our list. We leave rather disappointed. Barbara's broth was overly salty while mine seemed to have a burnt flavor in it. I appreciated the experience there, but, did not really get the glorious ramen that I was looking for. While walking back to the hotel we just happened to walk by the same coffee and cake place from last night. Barbara had a chamomile tea (that smelled great) and I had the same coffee from last night. Still glorious!

Tomorrow...FUJI!

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Whirlwind on a Stick

Today we have our only scheduled tour of the trip. Kind of a basic introduction to Tokyo. It was an extremely fast, whirlwind tour that I felt like a bonus is given to the operator if they can get us to each location and back within a certain time frame. We stopped by the Imperial Palace, but, were not allowed to get close to it. Obama beat us here as well. We got there just in time to see the Presidential Motorcade driving into the palace grounds. Not like we were going to get to go in anyway; The Emperor lives here. A walk through the beautiful manicured gardens was promised. There was no delivery of said walk.

Our next stop is Tokyo Tower. Very similar to the Eiffel tower. Just a bit taller. We take the elevator up to 'first' observatory station. You can go higher for an additional fee. We are not given the time. We were hustled along through the views and back onto the bus. Almost like we were never there.

Do Not Want!
Then we head off to the Sensoji Temple. This is the site of both a Shinto shrine and a Buddhist temple. There is also a bazaar of shops to poke around in. We cleanse ourselves with the pure water and purify ourselves with healing smoke of incense before heading into the temple. You can also pay 100 Yen for a fortune. They are not always good fortunes, we are told. If you don't like the fortune you are given you can tie it in a knot on, what looks like, a clothes line.

We wander the grounds here for a bit and then head off into the shops. At the suggestion of a couple from our tour group we get some green tea ice cream before heading back out to the bus.

On the way back to the hotel we get some information on things to do and see in Tokyo as well as discuss the subway system. We're on our own for the rest of the trip.

Barbara and I head towards a noodle shop to get ourselves some lunch. After an 80 dollar meal of delicious noodles, we decide it will probably be the last time we eat at the hotel. The pricing here is outrageous. Don't get me wrong, the food was fantastic and the service was exceptional. But, neither of us believe it was 80 dollars worth of fantastic.

We head to the room to pour over the various optional tours that are available. We choose a couple of them and head down to the concierge desk to get them booked. That's when we find out that a number of them are booked up solid. We had chosen a trip to Fuji-san. Booked on the day we wanted. So, we move some things around and get it scheduled for another day. We wanted to take a day trip to Kyoto - fully booked until Monday; We leave Monday. So, with many of the other optional tours not really to our liking (especially for the price of some of the half day tours), that gives us a couple days for exploration on our own.

We grab a map of the local walking area and head out into the night. We pass a number of very small eateries. Many of them have plastic replicas of each meal laid out showing what is served there. A number of them have signs stating that English menus are available. One place in particular catches my eye and nose. A yakitori place. There is no English sign or plastic food. We move on. After a number of blocks up and back through small alleys we find ourselves more and more hungry. We also find ourselves near the yakitori place. My Japanese is slowly returning to me and I can make out how much each thing costs on the displayed menu, but, not exactly what it is.

Barbara hears some English coming from within and steps inside. Sure enough, there is a group of guys standing at a table eating food on a stick and drinking beers. She asks if it was easy to order and they tell us that there is an English menu. One of them tells us to try the rectum. We chuckle. They are serious. Maybe we're in over our heads. We look over the menu and realize that most of what's on the menu is a little...exotic. Vocal chord, beef intestine, rectum (damned near killed 'em), root of tongue, throat, etc. We decide that we can order the waygu beef and minced pork, at least. We also order a couple of drinks. Barbara orders yuzu and I order a Red Hoppy. Looks like a type of malt liquor. They give us our glasses; Barb gets her yuzu with soda (as our server likes it) and I get a bottle with a glass...that already has about two fingers of liquid in it. No idea what that is. I sample it and it's some kind of iced liquor. I pour the contents of the bottle into the glass and give it a swig. It mixes well and doesn't taste much more than a mat liquor type drink that I would expect.

We are parked right in front of the grill. The chef points out our beef as he seasons it over the red hot coals. It's served, (as is everything here) on a stick and is quite fatty. Barb finishes half of it and gives me the rest. By this time, I'm a third of the way through my drink. That's a powerful force, there. I'm feeling a bit...looser. We decide to order a second round. Barb gets a grilled rice ball that we've been watching the chef meticulously prepare (which she really enjoyed) and I order up some tongue. Why not? I thought it was tasty when Marc tricked me into ordering it as a taco. This time it was a little chewy, but, had a glorious smoked flavor. All in all, a wonderful time was had. I would totally come back here again.

On our way back to the hotel we stop in at a coffee and cake shop. I order the Kilimanjaro coffee on the menu and Barbara orders some cheese cake. Barbara calls my attention to the strange contraption that they seem to be making my coffee with. I light up with excitement. This is something that I had read about in the past. It's a siphon system. It's a different way to make coffee. That coffee was fabulous. Very smooth. We will be back here before we leave the country.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Japan-a-go-go

We depart on our next adventure on a new airline for both of us; Singapore Airlines. Barb sweet talks the guy at check in into giving us a group of 3 seats so we are not packed in like sardines for this ten and a half hour flight. Unfortunately, that puts us in the middle section towards the back of the plane. We get through security and find our gate. Now we wait for a couple of hours until our flight boards. We head off to find ourselves something to do in the meantime.

I love international terminals. They just seem a bit more high class than domestic ones. The decor seems nicer. The seats are nicer. We post up at a wine bar and drink away our time. Of course this isn't a good idea right before getting on a long flight. The wine is just going to dehydrate us. But, we don't really care. We are on our way to Japan!

Our flight is filled with, what we can only presume is, a teen religious group on their way to do mission work or some such thing. There are about 40 late teens all dressed very nicely waiting to board the plane. Too nicely for a long international flight. Suits, dresses, ties, heels. After boarding the plane, we find ourselves right in the middle of the group. They all take turns in the on board restrooms and change into pajamas and comfortable flying attire. There is a profound lack of profanity and some small groups of singing during the flight. At least there are no crying infants around us. The Vonn Trapp family isn't that bad. The flight goes very well. If you have a chance to fly Singapore Airlines; Jump on it. In seat entertainment, WiFi, charging station...just great!

After landing, we find our tour group quickly and painlessly. We are numbers 3 and 4 out of 21 coming off the plane. Not sure how that works as we were some of the last people off the plane. ::shrug:: We find a couple seats and hang out while we wait. Barbara checks out the local restroom situation while I exchange our cash into Yen. It seems that two of the people that are in our group are missing. Like never got off the plane kind of missing. After two hours and several phone calls, we leave the airport without them. Maybe they missed their flight. I still don't know what happened to them. Nor do I really care. They are burning my vacation time.

On the way to the hotel, the Hotel Okura, we find that we have been bumped from that hotel into The New Otani (which was my preferred hotel). The other hotel had a somewhat surprise visitor; President Obama. He just happened to be in town at the same time as us. Our guide talks to us on our long trip from the airport to the hotel. It seems that most everyone on the bus are asleep however. Our bodies believe that it's around 4am. We get checked into the hotel and are asleep faster than you can say Rip Van...snore.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Honeymoon Recap

Barbara and I love Inidan food. We do not love India. We got to see the Taj Mahal and we are thrilled to have seen it. As a matter of fact, we have now seen many sights in India that we are glad to have seen but, never knew we needed to see them. At the start of the trip, we had thought that maybe we would schedule a trip in future years and come back to see Southern India. We're not so sure now. Don't get me wrong, it was a great trip. But, there are other places we would rather see before India makes it back to the top of the list. I had read somewhere that India is actually the acronym INDIA and stands for I'll Never Do It Again. We completely understand this.

Nepal, however. We'd come back here next week if we could. The people are friendly, the city is clean(er) and we just liked the vibe here. People are happy and seem to have purpose. There is a positive energy and contentedness you can feel as soon as you arrive. Maybe that's due to the contrast of coming from India, but, I believe that just made this feeling more tangible. Due to the rich history and the preservation efforts of the people, you get a feeling for the continuity of the living heritage of the place. We loved Nepal.

Our guide even talked to us about a guided trip that you fly from Kathmandu to Lassa, Tibet and then take 5 days to drive back to Kathmandu seeing sights along the way in both countries (up and over the Himalayas, to boot). Another trip that goes into Bhutan for 3 days from Kathmandu. What a trip that would be; Nepal, Tibet and Bhutan. That has to be on our list!

Homeward Bound

We sleep in. As we are packing up our belongings, the phone rings. I answer it and am told that the guide service headquarters is on the line for me. They want to assure me that everything is fine and that the guide will be there on time. I thought this was a bit strange.

Until they tell me, "No doubt, you have heard of the local plane crash that happened this morning". Uh...what? How am I feeling, they ask. I'm fine. How was your trip to Nepal? Did you enjoy your stay? It was great and yes, I enjoyed it immensely. They tell me that the guide will be at the airport at 12:30 as scheduled and hang up. I'm a little taken aback by the way they slipped in the whole thing about a plane crash. Like it's an everyday thing.

After a quick breakfast, our airport guide shows up and I ask him about the crash. He says that it was one of the Everest mountain tour planes. They are not sure what caused it as of yet. He believes it had to do with some rain and strong winds from the morning. The plane went down while coming in for a landing; Nobody survived the crash. Our guide's friend was the pilot. Seems that this specific airline has been operating that same tour for 12 years. This is their first incident. I guess, in the long view, that is a pretty good track record.

If we had been playing by the rules and not moving things around, our Everest flight was supposed to be this morning. You read that correctly. According to the tour, this morning was to be our attempt. But, because we made it clear to our guide that we all wanted to do this, he wanted to give us as many attempts as we could get to make sure it happened. On this trip we have missed an Earthquake, a hospital bombing in Agra (while we were in Agra) and now a plane crash. Raj had said that we were lucky that we got to see some of the things we saw. I guess, as a group, we are luckier than he thinks.

We take the trip to the airport and say our goodbyes to the guide and crew we head in to catch our flight. Of course, the check in counter for our airline (SpiceJet) doesn't open for another hour, at least. So, we park it in the tiny Kathmandu airport waiting to check in to our flight. After we get checked in and through security (three sets of pat downs, one x-ray, two wandings, and one physical bag search) we wait in a small and overly crowded departure lounge.

There is an earlier SpiceJet flight to Delhi that has been delayed and is still sitting on the tarmac. It had to have been sitting there for four or five hours already. Come to find out from another passenger in the lounge that it had a bomb threat on that plane and that's why it still sits there. In retrospect, I'm not so sure that was actually why it was there. It eventually took off. It may have just been bad weather.

We sit and wait for our flight to get called for boarding. If everything went off according to the schedule, we had almost 2 hours before boarding. 3 hours later we are told that nothing has been happening in the terminal because there is a small plane stuck on the runway. We talk amongst ourselves and are pretty much about to volunteer to go out on the runway and push the plane out of the way: no charge. Shortly after that we start hearing planes take off in rapid fire. Our flight number is called and we rush to the get into the land of 'no personal space'. An Indian guy with a large belly saddles up behind me and basically dry humps me, he's so close. His belly is pressed into my back. I want to start throwing elbows. Onto the plane, down the runway and into the air we go.

We land in Delhi for our transfer to our Air India flight. We are forced to fill out immigration forms to enter the country. Even though we don't intend on leaving the airport. I leave the address while staying in India blank. The immigration guy doesn't give me any real guff about that after telling him that we are just there for transit. We have to pickup our bags and then check into our outgoing flight. The problem is that they require a printout of the ticket information for each person to be let into that section of the airport. I have mine printed out, but, we don't have one for Barbara. I can't tell you how many people I argued with about this. They won't let her in unless she has a printed ticket (apparently, an email with your itinerary is a valid ticket to the idiots acting as security) or a boarding pass. I tell them that I don't have one, how can I get one. At the check in counter. Great, but, they wont let her go *to* the check in counter without it. They do not see the problem with this catch-22. I finally am told that she has to wait outside the check in area while I go in and try to get someone to get me a printout. More arguing at two different counters and I get someone to print out a piece of paper with some flight information and Barbara's name on it. What an entirely pointless and frustrating experience that was.

We get checked in to the flight and head towards security. Oh, and I now have to fill out departure immigration forms. I do have to explain to this immigration official that I never left the airport and therefore do not have an address that I stayed at while I was in India. I have been in the country a whole hour and a half, at most. He approves our departure. I mentally spit on their backwards bureaucracy. We go through multiple levels of security. We even have to go through security again right before our gate. How about doing security once and doing it correctly instead of doing it several times? I am still a little frustrated at it all.

We take off from Delhi on our 14ish hour journey. Barbara and I watch several movies and get some fit full sleep. We land in Newark. I am not happy with this, as we should have landed at JFK. Seems that JFK had some fog and the pilot redirected us. He didn't even get the right STATE! The announcement comes that we have landed in Newark and they hope that we can catch our connecting flights from here. WTF? Right, I'll just call the airport and have them send my connecting flight here to pick us up. We sit on the jet way. An hour goes by and we are told that the crew is in touch with their home office and they are trying to determine what they are going to do. Another hour goes by. More wishy-washy announcements. Another hour. Then another. We are finally told that we have refueled and will be flying over to JFK. We'll only be about 5 hours late. Nothing to worry about. I sure am glad that I purchased the cheap ticket option that forced our layover in JFK to be almost 11 hours. We should be able to get through immigration, customs, terminal change, check in, security and a lunch stop without any problems. Our friends Ann and Don are not so lucky. They miss their connecting flight by a couple hours. Looks like the next probably flight for them to get home is tomorrow at 12:30am.

So, here I sit at Gate 10 in the JFK airport waiting for our flight. There's another hour before boarding. Instead of waiting to see how things turn out, I am going to presume that our flight leaves on time and is a nice, smooth flight. We've had enough delays on this trip home. We deserve a nice, smooth flight. By the time we hit our homestead, we will have been travelling for almost 48 hours. A shower and bed awaits us.

Yoda, Goddess and Cats...oh my!

Listening to Raj speak reminds me of listening to Yoda sometimes. He starts to talk about an aspect of Nepalese life and veers slightly off and talks about the philosophy of it (or how he sees it). I feel like I'm sitting and listening at the master's feet. Soaking things in and understanding immediately what he's talking about. We really got an awesome guide.

We head down into old Kathmandu. We visit old palaces, temples, temples and even more temples. Raj says that Kathmandu has more temples than houses. He's serious. Every house has a room that is a temple. So, every house is a temple. But, not every temple is a house. Someone once told me (I think it was Holly) that you can only see so many temples before you are done. I understand that now.

Raj tells us that if we are lucky we may get to see the living goddess. Taking a picture of her is against the law. We enter into the viewing court and are told repeatedly that pictures are not allowed. Close the camera. I even get into the act by telling another tourist who is gripping his camera tightly that pictures are not allowed. I'm not going to be standing here for an hour while they keep repeating the same thing until people put the cameras away. Finally, she comes to the third story window to that we may worship her. She's six. I think that nowadays, it's less worshipping and more tourist viewing. After about a minute, she walks away from the window and the viewing is over.

Raj pulls us to one side and explains the story to us. Many years ago, there lived a King. That King could call upon this goddess and visit with her anytime he wished. However, no one could ever be allowed to see the goddess. All was good and well with the world. Until one day (of course) a lady caught a glimpse of the King and the goddess. The goddess disappeared and said she would never appear again. Years later, the goddess came to the king in a dream and told him to choose a female child. She would inhabit the child and allow others to view and worship her through the child until that child came of age. From that day forward, a young child was chosen to be the living goddess. The current one has been the goddess for three years.

After that we view a few more temples and then head back to the van. Next we are heading to Patan city, our guide's home town. We walk the streets of the town and go from temple to temple. Walking through alleys and squares. We dine at a small garden cafe. Barbara and I both have momos again. Barbara, however, not feeling very well, eats 2 of her 10. I eat all of mine and 3 of hers. Just a side note, 13 is too many momos.

In this cafe we find something that we have not seen since leaving the States: cats. Two of them. They hung out under our table and would eat anything provided to them. And I mean anything. They were eating momo pieces, bread (old and hard from yesterday's breakfast as well as fresh bread with butter), hamburger and chicken. Very friendly cats. Also pretty smart to hang out in a pet friendly outdoor eatery.

On the way back to the bus we stop off at a shop that sells singing bowls. Raj grew up close to the family that owns the shop. The family actually makes the bowls that they sell. They have been doing so for a few generations. We got a demonstration of 'bowl therapy' and each got to try our hand at playing them. Each of the three couples walked out with a bowl. Seeing as it was on my checklist of things to buy on the trip, I was thrilled!

Tomorrow, sadly, we head for home. We catch an afternoon flight to New Delhi. Then we have a 12:20am flight to JFK. From there, we have a several hour layover before we catch a flight home. I'm sure that we're going to be dead tired when we get home. It's going to be a long journey.

Everest

Still tired from a fairly restless night, we head down to the lobby for our Everest attempt (I love saying that). Shockingly, we are the first ones downstairs. That is a first for us on this trip. We don't have to wait long for the others and we pile into our van. At this time of the day it only takes us about thirty minutes to get to the airport.

The air tour guide gets us the boarding passes and points us in the direction of security. On the boarding pass, the destination is MTN. I hope our destination is actually back to this airport, not crashed into the side of the mountain. These people take security very seriously. I get a pretty thorough pat down as well as my stuff going through the X-ray machine and then hand checked. After that, I get another pat down. Then I run my stuff through another x-ray machine. Before boarding the bus that will take me to the plane, I get a pat down a third time. Where the hell was I supposed to find any contraband between these stages? The women complain that they did not get a pat down as much as a breast examination each time.

There are only 18 passengers on the plane. Each gets their own window seat. This would be so much more awesome if the windows were not all scratched to hell. Sitting on the tarmac, I'm having a hard time getting the camera to focus on anything. The scratches are messing with the auto-zoom function. I'm going to have to go full manual for any pictures.

There were 8 people all dressed in white robe type clothing that boarded the same flight. They seem to be on some sort of holy pilgrimage or something. Those bastards take our seats and feign that they don't know English. We all just pile into the back of the plane and realize that we actually have better views because we are not over the wing.

The flight is 50 minutes long and we get to see a lot of clouds. On a clear day, you can see the Himalayas laid out next to the flight path. This, unfortunately, was not a clear day. However, as we approach our target, Everest is visible. One by one, each person gets to get into the cockpit to take pictures of the mountain. The people up front go first. Those stupid shits knew all about how this works. They took an inordinate amount of time and some of them took multiple turns. By the time I got up there, we had already begun our turn and could barely get a shot. But, on the way back to my seat, the clouds cleared up a bit and I took some great shots out of one of the side windows. The flight back to the airport is done with a huge grin on my face.

We return to the hotel for a quick shower and breakfast. Today we are exploring Bhadgaon. It is a Newar city from the 9th century. It is actually marked as a World Heritage living history site. People still live and work here. The buildings are only 70'ish years old, however. Back in 1934 an earthquake devastated the city of Kathmandu. Most of the buildings were leveled at that time. However, the people rebuilt using the same materials that were lying in ruins. So, the buildings are fairly new but the materials are very old.

We are taken into an art school to learn about a type of Nepalese painting style. The painting is done on cloth, not canvas or paper. The cloth is stretched and then prepared with a material. I didn't actually get what that material is. It takes someone 12 years of practice to be able to prepare the cloth correctly. It has to be perfectly smooth. From there, that cloth is painted over by an artist (or several artists) using brush and paint. Normal, right? The longer you practice this type of painting the fewer hairs you get in your brush. The painting doubles as a meditation for the artist. They spend 8-10 hours per day working on a piece. Some pieces takes months. We saw one painting that took the artist 37 months to create. It had such detail on it...we were all blown away by it. The gold color in the paintings were not paint. It's actually gold that they use. It was all very impressive.

We head over to a section of town that holds a Buddhist stupa that is over 2500 years old and is one of the largest of its kind. I thought it was the tallest, but, was quickly corrected by the guide. He tells us that it is one of the tallest in the world and that it is the tallest in Kathmandu. For lunch we are seated in a second story cafe and dine on momos. They are Nepalese dumplings (and a favorite of our guide). We find them to be awesome. With lunch I drink down an Everest beer.

After lunch we walk around the stupa and visit a couple of the Buddhist temples. In the second one, I was one of the only people in there; With the exception of two monks. One of the monks ask where I am from. The US, I say. Would you take a blessing? Yes...please. The other monk sits down and invites me to sit in front of him. He chants over a container of oil and pours some in my hand. He mimes to me what to do. I place some of it on my head, then to my mouth and then to my chest. He continues to chant. Hell yeah! Blessed by a monk in Nepal. I am now living a charmed life.

We head off to something that I was sure I misheard; The cremation place. I think it would be a bit odd to take visitors of your country to the local crematorium. Yeah, I was wrong. That's exactly where we are being taken. Raj explains to us the customs of the Newari people of the valley. When someone dies, they are taken immediately to this place. They are carried there by four people. No matter the distance in the valley. Always carried. Never driven. The feet of the corpse are laid in the river to cleanse the body. Then the body is brought up to one of 10 kats (pyre locations) that jut out. The the eldest son (if it's the father) or the youngest son (if it's the mother) light the corpse. The other three carriers light the body in different spots. Once the corpse is fully burned (hours later), the ashes are swept into the river to complete the cycle and return the body to the last of the elements, water.

Death is not something that is feared in Nepal. It is natural and is part of the cycle. To be reborn, you must die. Raj laughed as he told us that he was not afraid of dying, but, he is not volunteering. This place was a place of mourning, a place of celebration of life, and is (get this) also a park. I have no pictures of this place, however. Raj said that taking pictures was forbidden at one point, but, with newer cameras and zoom lenses, it does not interrupt the ceremonies any longer. I still couldn't bring myself to take pictures of it. I found it to be a little disrespectful...whether I interrupted or not. There were 9 of the 10 kats being used this evening. I could see two more bodies with their feet soaking in the river.

Seems a little morose to end a day like that. But, it wasn't. Barbara had said that after watching the ritual she felt more alive. I realized that I did too. We walked back to the bus talking and joking with the group.

Tomorrow, more Kathmandu!

On to Nepal

So, we got to stay back at the Shangri La in Delhi again before our flight to Nepal. We had been looking forward to this night for the past several nights. This place is pretty swank. Of course we are handed a big steaming plate of disappointment. The room smelled musty. Probably because the air conditioner did a good job of laying a fine blanket of wet on everything. Not wet to the touch. Just damp enough that if you sit down on something you begin to notice it after a few moments. Of course, by the time we figure this out, our stuff has been scattered around, our shoes are off and it's late. We'll deal with it for one night.

The staff asked us this morning how our stay was. I let them know, in detail, the disappointment that this stay was. I even compared the stay of perfection about a week ago to this one. Their apologies were heard, but, the look on their faces was all I really needed. They acted appalled on our behalf and disappointed that we were not absolutely thrilled. I believe they will fix that room before anyone else stays in it.

Bags packed, we head to the airport. We have a new guide for this part; He will just walk us through the airport and make sure that we get checked in and up to security. On the ride over, he began asking details about the trip. How did we like the hotels? How as the meals? Etc. We gave it to him straight. Nobody liked the hotel in Agra. The meals ranged from glorious to OK. The farewell dinner last night was not worth it at all. By the end of our feedback, he was no longer smiling. I think he was hoping that we would give everything rave reviews. We spent the rest of the trip to the airport with silence from him. No matter, the remaining six that were heading to Nepal get along great. So, we entertained ourselves talking about various things.

Checking in wasn't too difficult. I mean, we all had to do this in order to get here in the first place. I'm glad we had someone to walk us through it. We breezed through departure immigration without any hiccups. The officer was even asking us if this was our first time in India. They take security a bit more seriously, however. There was a physical pat down, wanding and metal detector. Then we waited for the flight to begin boarding.

We would be flying Spice Air. This airline looks to be the cheap flight alternative within India. They fly to two international destinations; Sri Lanka and Nepal. The flight was fairly short. If you want anything but some water (about half pint of it), bring some cash. Barbara purchased a sandwich in flight and regretted it after one bite. Tammy, one of the ladies we are travelling with, said that the pilot missed a mountain with the wing by several yards while on approach. We landed hard and fast in Kathmandu. I wasn't sure this guy was going to be able to stop the plane. I'm pretty sure we fly back to Delhi in a couple of days using this same airline...great.

We walk down the steps to the tarmac, which is a bit weird for me. It's been a long time since I've done that. We board a bus to hit the international room...uh, I mean, terminal. We have to fill out some paperwork and stand in a hideously long line to purchase our visa. We had been told that the price of said visa was $30 each. We get off paying $25 each. Once we get the visas, we have to go through immigration. That seems to be a guy (sitting right next to the visa provider) who takes one copy of the visa receipt for himself, gives you the other one and writes something on the visa sticker in the passport. Ah, bureaucracy!

We pick up our luggage and meet our guide, Rajir. He tells us that we have about 45 minutes to get to the hotel. He will cover our itinerary once we get there. In that 45 minutes I can tell you several things about Nepal. First, I like this country a TON more than India. It's cleaner. The people are not as shiftless, they all are going somewhere or are waiting for something specific. The four days that we are here will probably not be enough. Traffic is less chaotic and quieter. Horns are used much less (they are still used way more than in San Diego, though).

We arrive in the hotel and are briefed on the itinerary. All six of us want the Everest flight option. Our guide says that he will be right back. He brings another guy over who says that we will try tomorrow morning and he will take care of us. If the weather is bad, we can then try again the next day. Wash, rinse and repeat until we either get the flight, or we have to leave the country. Come to find out that the viewing of Everest is guaranteed. If you fly, and don't see it, you only pay for the airport transfer. Not the flight. We are all pretty jazzed about that.

The room that Barbara and I get looks out onto a construction site with two large air conditioning buildings making a pretty loud racket. She looks at me and says that she is not putting up with that. I tell her to call down and try to get us a new room before we get settled. Within a half-hour we have bell hops at our door with our guide and a manager to move us to a new room. A much nicer one at that. Looks out onto the garden and pool.

We eat dinner with another couple we are with and each dine on burgers. Before you complain that we have sold out and are not eating the local fare, know that the hotel doesn't seem to offer Nepalese food of any renown (according to our guide). They have a Chinese place (apparently, not that great), an Italian place (good, according to previous tour members), an India place (we just came from India) and a continental cafe. The Italian place was further away from us than the cafe and we were tired from the day of travel. Besides, we figured the cafe would be cheaper. BTW, the burger was fine. Not great. But, fine.

We've got an early day tomorrow. We meet in the lobby at 5AM for an attempt at Everest by air! I'm beyond excited!!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Return to Delhi

We get to sleep in a bit today before we hit the road for Delhi. Some of the tour members will by flying back home. Six of us will be staying the night in Delhi for our flight tomorrow to Nepal. One of the retired couples is being dropped off at another hotel as they have extended their stay for several weeks and will be travelling around on their own.

On the way to lunch we stop off at a rural village to see what small agricultural village life is like. Both Barbara and I had a kind of hard time with this. We don't really feel comfortable wandering into and out of peoples' homes taking pictures of stuff like they and their lifestyles are strange and on display. She spends about 10 minutes and heads back to the bus. I head off into the crop fields with some of the others. Random villagers begin asking for money. That's my cue to leave. I have been to a personal home in China and made to feel welcome. They cooked for us, told us about their lives and even celebrated the moon festival with us. Not once did I ever feel that they wanted anything but to share these things with us. Of course, the tour company has paid for us to be there. I never felt that. Here, however, I felt that they huddled around us waiting for the opportunity to hold out their hands for tips. I did not feel welcome here as anything except potential extra income. I walked back to the bus.

We drive on for what seems like days. Barbara and I are getting a bit sick of the bus. Seems most of the others feel the same way. The only good thing about the bus is that it has air conditioning and is home base. Like when you played tag as a kid, home base. Pinkhu, our assistant driver (yeah, the driver does need an assistant for a bus on these streets), does a superb job of keeping the hawkers and vendors away from the bus entrance. Depending upon the location, we could be swarmed by people trying to sell us stuff. Pinkhu, who is all of 5 foot 2 inches, has no problems physically pushing these pests away from us as we near the bus if it comes to that. I saw him do it once. Once you were in the bus, you were safe. The prices of all those goods were also cheaper. Shankar would take sample items from each vendor, show them to us and give us a price. That price was always a third cheaper that the price the guy tried to get us to pay on the street.

Eventually, we arrive at the location for our 'going away' dinner. We sit outdoors in the heat and the sticky and are served a mediocre meal. Thankfully, it comes to an end as the people departing for the US need to be dropped off at the airport. Quick goodbyes are said as people file off the bus. The rest of us return to the Shangri-La for a last night in India.

Tomorrow is Nepal!

Elephants and Cobras

I wake up hungry and refreshed. My fever is gone and I feel so much better...well, after a shower I do.

We breakfast and hit the road. On our way there we encounter a new traffic type on the road. I have gotten used to pedestrians, bicycles, rickshaws, camels, horses and cows in addition to what I would consider normal traffic. We even had a group of monkeys cross the road in front of our bus at one point. However, elephants were new to me.

It doesn't take us too long to reach the Amber Fort. We can see the elephant 'loading dock' with no line. Barbara is so excited that I can feel the energy from it. As the others in the group look at the waiting elephant, Barbara and I are the first to step up and get onto our ride. We are sitting on its back with our legs hanging off one of the sides of the platform. Shankar takes my camera from me and snaps a couple shots of us (which I am very thankful for) and then we are off.

For those of you who have never been on the back of an elephant, I will try to describe it to you. Imagine sitting on the back of a wide backed horse, sideways. Now imagine that with every step you feel like you are about to be pitched off that animal from one side or another. It was not really a gentle or relaxing ride. That said, we loved it. We had a great time with it. We were laughing and talking to our 'driver' the entire way up (about a 15 minute ride...these guys are not known for their land speed).

The driver (whose name I can't quite remember, Mugar, Mahir, definitely and 'M' word...we'll call him Mahir) was a pleasure to have. Mahir handed me his turban and took a picture of me in it. I handed him my sunglasses and took his picture in them. We were told that a 50 rupee tip was sufficient by Shankar. We tipped him 300. It's about six dollars. Worth every penny.

The actual Amber Fort was great. Some spectacular stone work to be seen. It houses the crystal palace. Bad ass, huh? Well, not so fast. It's not made of crystal. It is still made of the same stone that the rest of the fort was crafted out of, but, many mirrors, crystals and other reflective surfaces were attached and placed upon the walls. The inlay work of that palace was impressive. There are three stained glass windows within that palace are rumored to be amazing. I say rumored because you are not allowed to enter that palace. However, if you lay down on the floor outside of one of the entrances, you can get a peek at one of the windows. Yeah, I got pictures of that :).

There was no elephant rides down the hill. Apparently, animal rights groups have rallied and the elephants now get to take the down slope journey unencumbered by tourists. The elephants also have a limited number of journeys that they are allowed to take per day. So, to get back down to the bus, we 'got to' take a jeep ride down.

I am pretty sure that I have seen these jeeps in old episodes of M.A.S.H. I was a little surprised that were still running. One of the jeeps that I looked at had bald tires. Not like the treads were worn down, completely bald like racing slicks. I was thankful we were not in that one for the ride down hill.

After leaving the fort we hit an artisan education establishment; Gems and jewelry. Barbara and I have been looking forward to this as you can get much better prices on jewelry outside of the states (as seen in the prices of the jade and pearl prices we got out of China). We spend far too much time and money there. When we are finished dealing with one of the owner's sons in his office, our group is gone. The son calls someone over and has us driven to our next destination to catch up with our tour group. Personalized car service; yeah, that's how we roll.

Turns out our next stop is yet another artisan education establishment. This time for textiles. Due to our late arrival, Barbara and I get our own personal demonstration of how they do things there. The wood block stamping of the patterns kind of blow my mind. The speed and accuracy in which these guys are stamping the pattern on the cloth is mind boggling. It would take me hours to do what these guys are accomplishing in minutes.

We bought a couple items and probably would have spent much, much more there. However, we felt a little guilty for holding everyone up and rushed through. Also our salesman...uh...I mean artisan representative had a personality that neither Barbara nor I meshed with. His presence made us rush through and get out as fast as possible. And so we left without having a duvet custom made for us. Nor did I have any shirts custom made...a fact that I look back on and think that I should have done. They were 300-400 rupees a shirt. That's six to eight dollars. If I wore them only a couple of times each they pay for themselves. Custom shirting in the states can run into the 60's and up for each shirt. Such is life.

Seeing as I was still recovering from my lack of food from the previous day, lunch was a glorious, glorious thing for me. I ate food. I wish I could tell you what it was. I order something different every time we eat. I, however, could not tell you what those dishes were. I have had a rogenjosh, mutton curries, chicken curries and a chicken korma so far. Shankar and Barbara had been talking during lunch yesterday about what he was eating. He said that it was Chicken Tikka Masala, but different. He special orders it everywhere he goes and it is his favorite dish. Barbara asked him to order it for her today. Oh, it was good. I got to sample it alongside my dish...something with cashews and raisins in it. You like raisins.

Onto the city palace. Or so I thought. We made a stop at an old observatory before that. Astrology plays a HUGE part in Indian culture. So, this was a big deal. Sundials, and the like abound in this place. There was a calendar that told you what month and day it was based upon the location of a shadow of a marker. It also told you what astrological sign you were currently in as well as other 'markers' based upon the time of day. There was a sundial that the guide showed us that was accurate to 20 seconds. He showed us how to read it and I looked at my watch, it was off by 20 minutes. Then he told us that India time is calculated based upon the time in Agra, not Jaipur...which was a 20 minute time difference. Bang! Awesome.

Now we were on our way to the city palace. There were a couple of museums to wander through and not much time to do it in. In retrospect, I'm not sure why the visit here was so short. I guess that the couple museums would not interest everyone. If given enough time for someone to go through both of them with actual interest in those subjects the others would have expired in the heat. There was a gate called the monsoon gate or the peacock gate that I took some pictures of that was beautiful. Painted in blues with peacocks sculptures protruding from the wall over the doorway.

As we leave the city palace we come across a snake charmer with a pair of cobras. He gestures to us to come closer. We oblige him, the sounds of cameras snapping photos all around barely being drowned out by the tune he plays for his pets. He pats next to him offering a spot for someone to come sit next to him. It takes a few times of his urgings for some people to cluster around him. Nobody really wanting to get near the deadly snakes (FYI, these cobras have no poison, or so Shankar tells us). I snap more photos as Barbara is one of those brave enough to cluster around him.

As everyone peels away from him, he catches my eye and pats next to him again. I figure, what the hell, I hand my camera to Barb and go sit down next to him. My wife basically holds down the shutter trigger for the camera and the pictures tell the tale well. Allow me to elucidate;

I sit down next to the guy and he stops playing for a moment to bring the cobra basket closer to me. He then tells me to pet the cobra. Hehe...what? Pet the cobra. Why not? I pet the cobra. He says that I should drape one around my neck. Uh...wait...the cobra? My neck? "I hold. It no danger." Yeah...that doesn't sound like a good idea. I pet the cobra again. Again, he brings up the neck thing. He reaches down and picks it up and places it on my shoulder. I smile wide for the camera. Partially terrified. Partically thrilled. Then the funniest thing happened. He starts talking to me about tipping. "I make good picture for you. You tip. 200, 300, 500 rupees. No problem. I make good picture for you." I assure him that I am going to tip. Hoping that my wife is getting some good shots. I had been told that 50 rupees would have been sufficient for a picture with the guy and his cobra. I tipped him 300 (about six dollars). Again, like most things here, it was worth every penny. And Barbara got GREAT shots of the entire deal.

We return to the hotel fairly early (about 4pm) for dinner and some rest. We depart tomorrow back to Delhi.

Jaipur Bound

We leave Agra this morning. Barbara and I are completely fine with this fact. We have agreed that Agra is the X'ian of India. Both cities are dirtier than the other cities in their respective countries. The only reason anyone would go there (in our opinion) are the historical sites that are there (Terracotta warriors, Taj Mahal, Red Fort, etc). If not for these drawing factors, these cities would not be tourist destinations.

We stop off at Fatepur Sikri, the lost city. Not sure why they call it that. It's obviously not lost. It never was lost. Its location has always been known. The city was built over an 11 year time span and the capitol was moved here from Agra. It remained the capitol for 12 years. Talk about bad return on investment. There seem to be conflicting reports as to why they left. Everything I have read about it states that the King left due to a water shortage. Shankar says that his research says it was due to some political problems in the North of India. In the end, I figured it really didn't matter much to me why the King left. He did and left a ghost town behind. A huge, sprawling ghost town.

There were some pretty impressive things about this place, to me. The King realised that if the place was overrun, he would need to depart quickly. A King could still be a King as long as he had money to hire troops to take his capitol back. If he had no money, he would cease to remain a monarch. So, with that in mind, he had many dozens of entrances and exits to the treasury. It is said the entire thing could be emptied of it's contents in under fifteen minutes. Seeing the structure, I could believe that.

A large courtyard held a pedestal where the King would sit to play his favorite game; hop scotch. We were described that the King would have several sets of young girls in specific colored dresses as the pieces. At that point, I was confused. One of the others on the tour said that it was a chess board that we would see when we got there. That made more sense. But, Shankar said that it was definitely not chess. Back to confusion. When Barbara and I finally got there, the confusion solidified. It was neither hop-scotch nor chess. Susan, one of the other tourists in our group, walked up to us and told us that it was Parcheesi. The clouds parted and the holy light of knowledge shown down upon us. Yes, that makes sense. The board fit correctly. The King and Queen could sit in the center of the board and make their moves with the various colored human pieces. Neat!

Throughout the visit to the lost city, I became to feel less and less...uh...well. I was drained. Had no energy. A couple pieces of candy brought me back for a bit. But, as soon as that wore off, I felt worse. I figured it must have been the small amount I ate for breakfast.

After an unremarkable lunch stop (good food from the little I could bring myself to eat, but, nothing else to report) we travelled onto Jaipur. I slept most of the way. Babara began getting worried at the fever that I had picked up somewhere. I told her that I would be fine. A little rest and I'll be good as new.

From what I can recall about the trip into Jaipur, I was pleasantly surprised. There were mountains in this region. On many of the mountain tops were smaller forts and, I hesitate to call them castles, other strongholds in various states of disrepair. Shankar told us that the country is working little by little to restore as many of them as they can. However, there is only so much money for this kind of work per year. So, some languish in hard to reach places in favor of those that can be more easily visited. One, in particular that I remember, stood at the very pinnacle of a steep mountain top. From the distance I saw it at, there was no easy approach to it. If your job was to invade that thing, you would probably go AWOL instead. It looked like a nightmare to take, and a dream to defend. It also must have had some great views of the surrounding countryside.

Shankar tells us that we have the Amber Fort tomorrow and there is a possibility of elephant rides from the parking up to the actual entrance. Barbara made giddy schoolgirl sounds. I think Shankar realised what that meant as he then immediately said that we would be getting to the fort early to make sure to get the best possible chance to ride the elephants. I grinned inwardly at the influence my wife has already established.

We arrived in Jaipur and got checked into our hotel. We were back to being in a nice establishment. It was no Sangria La in Delhi, but, it was exponentially better than the Clarks Shriaz in Agra. I've had cheap motel rooms in Vegas that were nicer than the one we had in Agra.

As soon as I got into the room I quickly stripped down and climbed under the covers of the bed shivering. My fever was in full effect. Barbara ordered room service and forced me to eat some food. I had to take my anti-malarial pills with food. She told me she was worried again. There's nothing to really worry, I told her. My immune system is the strongest muscle in my body. It's already kicked the snot out of every domestic bug it's encountered. Now, I have to go find foreign invaders for it to test its mettle against. It will come out victorious...I just need to rest and let it do its thing.

Tomorrow...elephant rides to the Amber Fort.

The Taj

A 5:30 start in the morning comes pretty early. We all piled onto the bus and were driven to the parking location. We could choose to either walk the 10 minutes or take a rickshaw. This early in the morning, we decided that the walk would do us some good. Get the blood flowing, so to speak.

As we approached the entrance, the gates opened. The line to get in was short; twenty people in each line (men's line and women's line). Not as long as we were told to expect. We went through the security (where they seemed to actually pay attention to the metal detectors and checked my pockets) and wandered toward the site of the actual Taj Mahal.

Friends, allow me to tell you that if you have the chance to see this sight, TAKE THAT CHANCE! This is truly a wonder to behold. Like many things of its nature, words cannot describe it. We spent the next couple of hours taking photo after photo and walking the grounds. Over the first hour, the sun rose higher in the sky and the light changed on the Taj. It seemed to take on slightly different colors. During our free time there, most of the other people on the tour stopped and thanked Barbara for insisting on the sunrise. Many of them expressed that it was what they wanted as well, but, didn't want to rock the boat or force the issue. None of the others were upset with her, at all. They were thrilled that someone would not back down.

Back to the hotel we went. Due to the early departure time, nobody had really had the chance to get breakfast (or a morning shower for many of us). Everyone was happy to have some time to rest, relax, eat and wash up. As a tourist in India, I will take any opportunity for a shower. Do I really need to say anything about food opportunities?

We head off for our next adventure; The Red Fort of Agra. Built by the Moghal Kings, it was home to their seat of power. It was where the 5th Moghal King watched as the Taj Mahal was built. 22 years he watched. Of course, shortly after he buried his wife there, his son overthrew him and kept him prisoner here. This place was pretty enormous. The entire thing is built out of red sandstone. The nearby river was used to fill the reservoirs of the fort (three of them cascading uphill) to provide water for its inhabitants. Due to the height of the final reservoir, the water had enough pressure to power the fountains within the places of the king and family. It also rand down a cleverly designed screen that the wind blew through; an early form of air conditioning.

We get some lunch and then stop off at an artisan education facility. Much like the carpet market. This time the art is marble inlay. We watch in abject fascination at the delicate, precise work of these artists while shaping tiny, tiny pieces of precious and semi-precious stone to be laid into the hand gouged grooves of the marble. Color me impressed.

We head to the tomb of I'timād-ud-Daulah, or the Baby Taj as it's sometimes called. It is a smaller version of the Taj Mahal. It's inlay is mostly intact (due to the much more common materials used for the inlay work). It was actually built before the Taj Mahal and was used as a model to build a bigger, more extravagant version. It was nice. I'm sure that it would have been more impressive if I had not already seen, I hesitate to say, the real thing.

Shankar tells us that our next stop is a local market so we can wander around. When we get there, he points to where it is and basically says, there it is, have fun. Now friends, there are no sidewalks in this market. But, there is a busy street that we get the opportunity to walk down. It's a good thing we had a guide to tell us what was what. Oh wait! He had stayed on the bus. We were given a half hour to walk around the market. We were all pretty much done within 10 minutes...round trip. None of us really knew what it is we were supposed to be experiencing. Nobody was in the mood to buy produce.

He then took us to another market to wander. We each looked at one another. Again, seriously? Similar procedure. We arrive, the direction is pointed out to us and we were given the have fun speech again. It was a five minute walk and we had to cross a busy intersection. There is no such thing as right of way or crosswalks in India that I can see. So, crossing was a slightly harrowing experience. Granted, this market was a bit more upscale...it had a sidewalk and the stores offered goods, not just produce and promises of unknown bowel issues to come. We actually spent most of our half hour time walking around the area.

Back to the hotel where Barbara and I had dinner on the top floor of our hotel. That restaurant, I had read, had a glorious view of the Taj Mahal at night. Friends, I was lied to. The Taj, apparently, does not get lit up at night. So, while it may have a view of the Taj, it could not possibly be considered glorious, as it's pitch black in that area of town. The food was decent, but, not altogether mind blowing as I had hoped. The service was outstanding.

Tomorrow, we depart for Jaipur.

Not Backing Down

We pack up our stuffs and set the bags outside of the room to be taken to the bus and head down to breakfast. Barbara is interested in one of the sauces that is served on the breakfast buffet. I suggest she ask the guy tending the food. She smiles and replies with one of my favorite questions; "why not?" and heads off towards the guy. I watch as he smiles and calls up one of the chefs of the restaurant. They chat for a while and she comes back to the table. She got the ingredients for that sauce as well as telling him how much I enjoyed the chickpea curry from the day before. Seems he went back to the kitchen to see if they had any left for me. It's that good, my friends.

The distance is not very far from Delhi to Agra. But, the speed at which traffic travels keeps everything at a nice and slow pace (the speed limit for the bus is 40k/hr...roughly 25 mph). There do not seem to be any highways that are meant for high speed travel. There are scooters, tuk-tuks, buses, cars, people and cows on every street. I watched as buses stop near the median of an off ramp to let people off. Not in a 'breakdown lane' like we have; right in the lane itself.

Horns are a huge part of driving and the rules of the road here. They are not used for the same things we use them for. They are not 'watch it you almost hit me' horns. They are passing horns. They are get out of the way horns. Anytime a vehicle passes another vehicle, they honk the horn to let the guy they are passing know not to drift out of their current lane. Even though nobody actually uses lanes. I guess it's more like don't drift off of your current line. Our bus (who has the most pathetic sounding horn in India) uses the horn to tell slower traffic to get out of our way. Not many drivers seem to listen to us. Probably because our weak horn. Not manly at all.

For lunch we stop at, what I can only call a road-side tourist attraction. There's a restaurant with a couple of shops attached to it. Out front there is a guy dressed in traditional clothing with an old Indian instrument. As he plays it a small girl (also dressed in traditional clothing) dances and whirls around. I would post pictures of them, but taking pictures would require a tip to them. Across the parking lot a man plays a horn and lets loose his cobra. None of us approach as Shankar says that any interaction with him will also require a tip.

Speaking of tipping; It's pretty big here. Not much in the way of tips. But, it's everywhere. There is a bathroom attendant who will turn the faucet on and off for you, squeeze soap into your hands and provide you with something to dry your hands. For this, you pay him a tip of 10 rupees (about 20 cents). Those are the good bathrooms. The not so good bathrooms there is a guy who has pretty much claimed the bathroom as his own and will provide you napkins to dry your hands with (not a good material to use as it falls apart when making the attempt) and will provide you toilet paper if needed. Of course, this also costs you a tip of around 10 rupees. Tipping for meals is anywhere from eight to ten percent of the bill.

We stop off at a large tomb of Akbar, a Mohgul King. I believe it was the third mohgul king that is entombed here. His son, the fourth king, added to the tomb after his father passed away. A large, red sandstone tomb with walls, gardens and deer? Yes, a herd of deer live within the large gardens of the tomb.

Next stop, Agra itself. We begin discussing the plans for tomorrow and our visit to the Taj Mahal. Shankar tells the bus that it would be better to sleep in a little and to go at 8am instead of sunrise. He reasons that, in his experience, the Taj is beautiful no matter what time of day it is. In the morning the line to get in can be long....very long. It could take us over an hour and a half to get through security at that time of the day. Therefore, we should not try for a sunrise tour. Is that OK with everyone. Many of the people seem to agree with the idea. Many...not all. Barbara and I are not thrilled with this. A family of three begin putting up a small fuss about being there at sunrise. He quiets them down. Later I find out he was using circular illogic to make his point. Every time they said they wanted to be there at sunrise he would respond with, they don't open the gates until sunrise. So, it's no good to be there that early. Yes, we understand that we will miss the actual sunrise, but, we want to see the light change across the Taj as it makes its way up. Every guidebook ever written about the area says to be there at sunrise or sunset for the most amazing views. His response reverted back to they don't open the gate until sunrise. Then they have to go through security which could take some time. They would miss the sunrise. Yes, we understand that. OK, then we go later in the day. Round and round they went. They finally acquiesce.

However, he had only fought a battle. Not the war. He had yet to square off with a real opponent; my wife. She started in on him nicely. No point in being rude. Just as the police pulls his firearm as a last resort, my wife holds the platinum plated bitch card in reserve. She was not going to back down. I tried to compromise by saying that we would take a taxi over there by ourselves and meet them there when they got there. The fool did not see the potential cease fire and told us that we all have to go at the same time, due to some sort of tour restriction. I sat back in my seat and could see that Barbara had been polishing the shine on that bitch card of hers in those few moments. Several minutes later, he announces to the bus that we would be leaving the hotel before sunrise so that we could have a sunrise tour of the Taj. Exactly like the tour says, I thought to myself.

Combat takes it's toll upon the participants. Barbara was pretty upset when we arrived at the hotel. On top of squaring off with our tour guide, we were pretty sure we had upset some of the other travellers by having them be on the bus at 5:30am. We decided that we would just order room service. The hotel was a dump. I am sure that it was a nice place compared to many of the other establishments. But, it was not what I had in mind as a nice hotel. It was nowhere near what we had come to expect from Friendly Planet. Ordering room service was a bad idea. I think that the only decision we could have made to make it worse was to drink the local water...

We went to bed early (and a little hungry) but a bit excited to travel the the Taj Mahal tomorrow.

Delhi Living

We woke this morning to rain and excitement. Excitement diminished ever so slightly by the rain. Until we hit the breakfast buffet. I hit the meats and fruits and allowed Barbara to scope out the local foods. She's so much better at chatting up the chef/wait staff/locals in getting the low down on what is available. She comes back with a full plate of all kinds of food stuffs. Several tastes later, I now know what to get on my second pass. We each ordered a couple eggs made to order. I regret this decision almost as soon as my order is placed in front of me. A mushroom omelet that seems to be missing the mushrooms and doesn't look as thoroughly cooked as I would like. My second plate is filled with the gloriousness that Barbara has found in the local section of the buffet; A chickpea curry, several other sauces that I could not really identify (other than one had cilantro in it) and some flat breads. In the end we both roll our full selves to the bus for our first stop.

The bus pulls up in front of the Jama Mosque. It is a red sandstone number that seems to me to be pretty massive. Shankar tells us that we should wait in the bus for a bit for the bad weather to pass. It was lightly raining at the time. Barbara and I looked at each other figuring that a little light rain isn't going to hurt anyone. We have rain coats. She brought an umbrella. But, I don't think everyone else came as prepared for this type of weather. So in the bus we remained.

Shankar is like a weatherman. Several minutes later the rain started coming down in sheets. Pouring down rain. Yeah, that would have sucked. There would be no way for me to be able to pull my camera out and use it in that weather. We looked out the windows of the bus and entertained ourselves for about a quarter hour when the rain lightened again.

After the security check and metal detector scan (that nobody seemed to pay attention to), we are told we must take our shoes off to enter the mosque. I'm not really a barefoot kind of fellow. The majority of the mosque is outdoors. After the heavy rain we just had and the continual light rain, there's no way I can walk around in socks. Who would ever have thought that, of all the places, I would kick off my shoes and wander around barefoot in India. Barbara was asked to wear a gown (as were all of the ladies and those men who had shorts on) to be able to enter the mosque. We wandered around and enjoyed ourselves thoroughly.

For those of you who have been reading for a while, the next stop should be a pub. That's how these travels are supposed to go; Religion and then beer. Looks like I'm not going to be able to follow that on this trip :(. After this place of worship we were treated to a rickshaw ride through the very narrow streets and alley in the area. Motorcycles, rickshaws, bicycles and, at times, cars vied for the right of way on these sometimes one lane alleys. Our rickshaw driver seemed to be able to navigate through jedi powers. Dodging and weaving left and right around the people and other vehicles. It was pretty damned cool. He drove us around for about 20 minutes and we ended up back at our tour bus.

Our next stop would be the location that Gandhi was cremated. In the Hindu culture, the body is cremated and the ashes returned to the nearest river. Gandhi's place of cremation was turned into a large park and monument. However, due to the rains, all of the entrances were completely flooded. In some locations we would have to wade through water halfway up to our knees. Some of the members of our tour were not very keen on that. Shankar said we would try another entrance to the park. It had the same situation. He told us not to worry, he has a backup plan.

We were taken to the house that Gandhi had lived out his last 144 days. In the back of the house where he was living was where he was assassinated. The house and grounds have been turned into a museum to his life and death. We spent some time wandering the grounds and house. Not too bad of a backup plan. Especially for a last minute game change.

The India Gate was our next stop for today. Yes, lots of things to do and see on these tours most days. The India Gate was built in the same style as the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. It was placed there as a war memorial to honor the Indian soldiers that had lost their lives fighting in World War I. It holds the Indian Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

For lunch (or light snack, as it turns out) we stop by what we will call an Artisan Education Facility. These locations are on all of these types of tours. From what I have read, they actually help to keep the costs down. They figure they will kick back some money to the tour operator for expenses because they know they will have a steady stream of potential customers constantly walking through the door.

This facility is a Cashmere crafts institution where rugs are made. We are treated to a demonstration of how these rugs are made, their history and then shown various rugs of different sizes and shapes. Of course, all of these rugs are for sale. I believe that the rug dealer had said "We will not pressure you to buy a rug you do not want, but, if you fall in love with a rug, we will not stop". I have always wanted to buy a rug in a place like this. It's an experience I was looking for if/when we ever get to Istanbul. I had no idea that I would get that experience here.

We sat down and gave the dealer something to start with. We told him we are looking for a round rug and an approximate size. Men started pulling rugs and showing them to us. We told them that we didn't like this color or that type of pattern and away those carpets would go to be replaced with carpets a bit more to our taste. Each time he asked us about a carpet that did not match our taste, he would look at one of the many assistants and would tell them to take that carpet away. However, he would say it in a way that sounded like the carpet offended us, and therefore offended him. Eventually, my dear readers, he found a carpet that Barbara and I could not leave without. With free freight and insurance I filled out the forms and forked over some cash. Our carpet arrives in about 3 weeks.

After the rug merchant, we headed out to the Qutab Minar. This is the largest free standing minaret in the world at 238 feet. It was pretty impressive. I took a boat load of pictures of it (me? Take pictures of something? Nah). Some things, I find, just want to have their photos taken. This is one of those things. At the same site is the Iron Pillar. From what we were told, this is an old border/boundary marker from the 5th century made from...you guessed it...iron. The interesting thing about it is that, although it is iron and completely open to the elements, it has never rusted. Nobody has been able to explain why this is.

The last stop for the day is the Lakshmi Narayan Temple. We are given a blessing of the temple and Tilak (the red dot). Shankar explains the different gods of the temple and we are given some time to wander around to explore on our own. By the way, this being a temple, we are shoeless again. At the end of our free time we meet back towards the main part of the temple when one of the two religious ceremonies for the day begins. One ceremony in the morning and one in the evening. Each lasts about eight to ten minutes. I guess we could count ourselves lucky to be able to experience one of the ceremonies on my first (and possibly only) trip to the temple.

Back to the hotel for some dinner and rest. I would like to say the food was passable. It was GLORIOUS! No secret that both Barbara and I love Indian food. This meal served it up right. A lamb kebab, a chicken curry dish with naan and some local wine; Awesome. I even got to try a specific type of coffee that is made here during the monsoon season. Very strong coffee. I loved it! Barbara's creme brule was missing the hard sugar crust on top....so more of a custard then a creme brule. But apparently still tasty.

Tomorrow we have a long bus ride to Agra; near seven hours.

Everything's OK

Sorry we have been out of touch for the past several days. Seems that getting connections was not as ubiquitous as I had thought. Let me get one thing out right off; We were not affected by the earthquake where we were. We couldn't even feel it. If it weren't for a couple of the other members of the tour watching the television every night, we probably wouldn't even have known about it until we got to this hotel tonight (when we could get internet connectivity again).

I have been writing posts and they will follow shortly. Within minutes, really. I just need to copy and past the text into new posts, run spell check and hit the magic post button. Please stand by.

Attention family members: If you have no idea about any earthquakes in this part of the world, ignore this post. Having a great time and can't wait to see you.