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We should have visited the Taj Mahal at the first part of our trip. We realize that now.

One of the new Seven Wonders of the World, the renowned memorial to a Shah's dead wife, it is supposed to be the most beautiful monument of love on earth.

The quote about it that the Indian public seems to like most is that it is 'a teardrop on the face of eternity.'

It's an icon, the name of a blues singer, a metaphor for an act of love.

It's, well, it's pretty.

Really pretty?

Set in a lush garden of flowers, grass and trees (not part of the original plan, I overheard a guide say) and approached along a wide, fountain-dotted reflection pool, the Taj Mahal is a peaceful place to sit and look around.

The cool marble exterior takes on the color of the dawn and sunset. The dim interior is a hushed mausoleum.

But, I can't help but feel, despite its technical elegance, it's world-famous history (Boy meets girl, girl has too many babies, girl dies, boy is sad, boy's son locks him up to die alone), that it's just, well, pretty.

I contrast it to the mirrored palaces and pavilions of Udaipur, Bundi and Ajmer. The gardens in Bikaner. The marble work in Jaipur. Before we had seen these things, I think we would have appreciated this solemn place a little more.

**Click here to see photos from Agra**

 
 
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"Oh, no problem. It's flat."

The small man in the office in McLeod Ganj didn't look like a mountain climber, but he seemed sure of himself. Lots of tourists use his guiding service, he said.

"Triund, 9 kilometers. Snowline, 3 kilometers. One day!" he said with confidence. And he quoted his prices with confidence too--4,400 rupees for the two of us to take a guide up to the snowline, spend a night in a mountaintop lodge and come back down.

We decided that instead of spending five days' budget on one hike, we'd rather try the trek by ourselves, using a map we bought from the tourism office for two rupees.

'How hard could it be?' we asked each other. 'We just hike up the hill, then to the snowline, it's flat!"

Yeah, flat like a mountain is flat.

In China, briefly, we considered ourselves good hikers. We would power up the hills in the national parks, leaving whole families of Chinese tourists in our wake. Well, that was when the competition wore high heels and the trails were antiseptic, cemented parodies of nature.

Unfortunately, a real mountain and real hikers kick Dan's and my collective butt.

The general consensus of the several guiding agencies and the talkative man at the tourism department was that it would take us about three hours to hike up to Triund, the 'base camp', and then a further hour to the snowline below Ilaqua pass.

Four hours up? No problem, we said at 7 a.m., lacing up our boots and stocking our backpacks with bottles of water. We'll be back in time for dinner.

Hah.

At 8 we stopped for breakfast.

At 8:15 we stopped for breath.

At 8:20 we stopped to take pictures.

At 8:25 we stopped for a pee.

At 8:30 we were down a liter of water.

At 9:30 we were wondering where that shortcut was.

By 3:30 we were in Triund.

Evidence of our weakness passed us by every half hour or so. A Japanese or Korean couple who ate breakfast when we did passed us at the halfway mark - but they were going back down, at 11:30. A Dutch mother-son duo got to the snowline by 12, took a few hours to relax at Triund, and strolled leisurely back down to the village for meditation classes. An Indian man afflicted by childhood polio passed us on crutches, smoking.

We persevered.

And the day, when seen from the top, was gorgeous. At Triund, we could see the three snow-frosted peaks clearly. Down below, back the way we came, the afternoon sun lit the flowering rhododendron trees to a flaming red.

A man came out of one of the stone and tarpaulin shacks at the top and offered us tea. We ended up renting a tent from him too and staying the night on top, watching the moon light the snow caps and the stars shift through the night.

A group of recent college grads, three Tibetan refugees and a Nepalese guy, invited us to sit by their campfire with them. They talked about sports and some of the hardships of being a refugee.

The next morning we got ourselves up for the sunrise and continued to the snow.

Flat it wasn't. But it was fantastic.

**Click here to see photos of McLeodGanj**

 
 
Now, this is fast food.

Like a tin wind-up toy, the food server danced toward us in near frantic rhythm.

Sweating a little, and worried that my scarf has slipped too far off my hairline for propriety, I watched him from my seat on the floor.

Left foot sideways. Ladle in the bucket. Right foot sideways and back. Ladle out. Left foot forward, and, plop!, a deposit of green pea curry in the metal tray of the Sikh woman in front of him.

She sat cross-legged with her family on the long woven mat with her dishes in front of her, like me and Dan, just one of the thousands of hungry who come to the Amritsar Golden Temple's langar, or community kitchen.

I can't watch the pea curry guy for long though, because someone is coming with water to pour in the metal bowl in front of me, and another man is coming with the chapati basket. All of the scurrying servers, cleaners and cooks are volunteers.

They have to rush--hordes of people wait for every twenty-minute seating. After our quickly eaten meal of curry, dal, rice pudding and chapati, the diners carried their trays, bowls and spoons out to the communal dish washing area. I have never seen dishes washed so religiously.

Leaving the area to the hand washing station, groups of men and women clustered on the floor peeling onions and garlic for a future meal.

We visited the Golden Temple to try to get a picture of Sikhism, a religion from Northwest India. Sikh men are easily recognizable by the large, tightly wrapped turbans they wear.

From what we gathered from the museum and other reading, in general Sikhs believe in community service and standing up for the poor. They are fierce soldiers and have no caste system. The founder of the religion mixed some Hindu and some Muslim beliefs with his own workaday spiritualism.

As nice as it was at the Golden (as in real gold!) Temple with it's huge pond for ritual purification and laid-back shady colonnades, we weren't in love with Amritsar city itself and decided to press on to the Himalayan foothills after only a few days there.


**Click here to see photos from the Golden Temple.**
 
 
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Dan giving a magic show in the village.
Dan now has an international reputation as a magician.

From classroom tool to ice-breaker, the few dollar-store tricks he carries in a special pouch have charmed children (and plenty of adults) from China to Cambodia and Indonesia to India.


But he'd never actually been asked to do a show until Rajasthan.


Through our guesthouse, we had hired an autorickshaw, a three-wheeled motorbike cab, to drive us out of Bikaner and go to a traditional village. The driver, Baba, took us to Raisar, a place about 20 kilometers north where he had some personal friends. They would open the doors to the village and let us get a look at what life is like in the desert.


At first though, when we got to the village, it was awkward. The driver didn't seem too sure of his English. The friend kinda seemed like he didn't know what to show us. And, like anywhere in Asia, we were getting stared at by a dozen or so earnest pairs of eyes from a distance of, oh, about two feet. They treated us like honored guests, pulling out weather-beaten plastic chairs for us to sit on while everyone else hunkered down on the sand or on the concrete wall. We sat for awhile, the driver and his friend talking in local dialect and small (and not-so-small) children running up every few minutes for a nice long look at us and then running off again to tell somebody else about the cool thing going on down at so-and-so's house.


Tea came and we sat up stiffly wondering if there was some etiquette about who needed to drink first. While we waited to figure that out, Dan pulled out his magic bag.


“This is ten rupees, right?” he asked them, holding out a piece of money-sized paper with a cartoon rendering of Gandhi and a big ball-point “TEN” written on it.


They looked at him and nodded. Whatever you say, crazy foreigner, I could almost hear them thinking.


“No, it's not!” Dan exclaimed. And, with a bit of folding and re-folding and a generous dose of magic, he produced a real 10-rupee note. “This is!”


They all sucked in their breaths and grinned. “Aaaaahhh!” The kid who brought us the tea almost fell off the wall. The other boys, the self-appointed staring crew, broke into bird laughter. Our driver started to smile. Yes, it was going to be a good day.


We walked around after that, looking at houses, watching a camel being shorn in a decorative pattern, peeking in to a new-born camel milking its mother, and taking pictures of the kids who followed us as if we were the Pied Piper.


We stopped to greet some people the driver knew.

“Show them your magic rupees!” he told Dan.


Later, we greeted some old men with a respectful Hindi greeting: 'Ram ram sha.' We went into an adobe home home and met five generations living under one roof. We saw camel wool being woven into shawls.


“What about the magic?” the driver suggested.


Dan was famous.


A long rickshaw ride later, we got back to the family-run guesthouse where we were staying. We were tired, since we'd also stopped by the royal cenotaphs, a temple dedicated to Hanuman, the monkey god, and a fanciful concrete faux cave/temple dedicated to another manifestation of Durga.


The guesthouse owner greeted us, wanted to know how the trip went. Very good, we said.


A few hours later, he found Dan.


“Hey! I hear you're a magician! Come show my family and show the guests!”


Click here to see photos of Raisar and Bikaner

 
 
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A holy rat.
If you died and came back as an animal, what would you like to be?


Bet it's not a rat.


But, the desert temple of Karni Mata in small town Deshnoke, Rajasthan, protects a whole flock of rodents the faithful believe were locals in their past lives.


We came across several versions of the story, but it seems that a girl who lived in the town some 500 years ago turned out to be an incarnation of the goddess Durga.


One of the miracles attributed to her, along with saving people from snakebites, creating springs of water in the arid desert, taking the form of a lion to fight enemies and feeding an army from just a few chappatis and a bit of yoghurt, is that she saved the souls of a group of people from going to the death god, Yama. Instead of going with Yama, these peoples' souls are reborn in the form of the holy rats that scamper about the temple consecrated to Karni Mata. Which group of people are now living rodenty lives seems to be a matter of confusion—whether it's storytellers in general, the relatives of a specific storyteller or the family of Karni Mata herself, wasn't clear to me after our visit.


The temple is a small one, down a dusty dirt road surrounded by low buildings and near the train line. At the entrance, people hawked the normal things you find by any temple in India—bangle bracelets, religious tracts, effigies of gods and goddesses and cups of tea. At this temple, they also sold food for the rats.


Entering the temple, I clumsily stepped through wet, clotted globs of pigeon doodoo, feeling the crumbs of yellow sacrificial meal (read: rat food) between my bare toes. Rats ran freely about the enclosure, snacking on the meal or slurping down milk from large steel pans placed there just for them.


The first rat—though Dan and I agreed it would be better termed a 'large mouse'--made us jump a bit.


We're in agreement--we've reached a new level of gross. But, strangely, though the thought of going to the rat temple had made my skin crawl while we were planning our trip, at the temple it seemed as normal as anything else we've done traveling.


The mice were pretty cute, really, scrubbing their little whiskered faces with tiny pink paws and scurrying back to the many holes in the temple walls to escape the increasing brilliance of the morning sun. A lady took a special interest in us and showed us how to walk around the back of the altar and where to hug the wall if we wanted to pray.


We spent awhile craning our necks in an alcove watching a few mice in the shadows, trying to spot the holiest of holy rodents—the albino rat. A man standing there, seemingly for that express purpose, told us to watch out for it. We had no luck there, but did spot a jaundiced-looking yellowy rat in a different part of the temple. The guidebook also mentioned that if the mice ran over our feet, that would bring good luck. We had brought some cookies with us on the bus for breakfast and decided to give the rest to the rats. While we did this one climbed up my bag, and later some nibbled on our toes, mistaking them for cookie crumbs. I figure, we're in good with the rats.

So, if you do come back as a rodent, mention my name.

***

Click here to see photos of the Rat Temple

 
 
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Since our cooking class in Cambodia last December, we've been excited about taking another—it's a fun way to spend the afternoon, and best of all, we get to eat the result. And, unlike my high school cooking class fiasco, nobody's going to grade me on how thinly I slice anything or make me wash the dishes.


One of the draws for us to stay at Vino's Guesthouse in Bikaner was that the family that runs it offers free cooking demonstrations. They have a short menu of items you can order , and then a window built into the kitchen where you can watch the owner's sister-in-law cook up your dinner or lunch and explain what she's doing. You just pay for what you eat.



We decided to get a demo of dal fry, since it's one of our favorites and ubiquitous on restaurant menus throughout India; alu gobi, curried potato and cabbage ; a local Rajasthani dish we'd never heard of before called dana methi, principally fenugreek; and as a snack, vegetable pakora.


Click on "Read More" to see what we observed. (Forgive me for my lack of technical cooking language!):

 
 
  
 
 
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The Phantom.
“I thought you weren't interested in cars,” Dan said.


“Hmm....” I snapped another picture. “I like looking at them. I don't like talking about them much.”


That didn't stop us from spending over an hour exclaiming over (and coveting) the fifteen vintage cars on show in the Udaipur maharanas' collection.


From a Rolls Royce Phantom (only 50 made) to 1940s Jeeps, the automobiles were an interesting look into the garage of a family richer than I can imagine. Rolls Royces are great, but our favorite was the 1930 Model-A Ford. Classy!


Usually when we go to palaces or forts, we get to look at the old swords of the maharajas, the clothes worn by the princesses, the household items. Checking out the old vehicles was a refreshing change from our usual sightseeing, and—bonus--the entrance ticket included lunch!

 
 
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Every time we saw a palace in Rajasthan, it topped all the other palaces or forts we visited before it. Just when we thought that they couldn't get more elaborate, more luxurious, more quirky, they did.

The City Palace of Udaipur was no exception.

Built some 400 years ago by the still-present royal family of Udaipur, whose ancestors were so great they are referred to as maharanas instead of just plain old maharajas, it's a gargantuan opus set on the shore of a placid lake, crowned with pleasure gardens and studded with monochrome rooms decorated with imported tiles and glass. There's the pink room, the blue suite, the yellow hallway.


And the use of mirrors! There's the mirrored courtyard where coy colored-glass peacocks shine your reflection back to you. There's the mirrored hallway, where one side overlooks the white and blue houses of the Old Town and the other flashes you back at yourself. There's the mirrored dining room, that looks more like a modern disco than a royal mess hall.

Only a part of the complex is devoted to the museum. Some members of the royal family still live in the north wing. In a nearby building, a son of the current maharana keeps his classic car collection and his experimental solar-powered vehicles. Another wing has a giant collection of crystal furniture and accessories imported from Europe. Other parts are high-class restaurants and shops.

But the pearl of the maharanas' palaces has got to be the Lake Palace.

Made famous in the west by the James Bond flick Octopussy, the Lake Palace sits on a small island facing the City Palace. In the movie, it's the hideout of the Octopussy herself and her retinue of femme fatale bodyguards. The original island is completely built over, so the palace looks like its floating on the glassy lake.

Like the City Palace, it's still a residence, but for paying guests. People with the funds to fork out a thousand or so dollars a night can stay there, swim in the pool, eat in the famous restaurant and feel a little like 007. We had planned for the last month to ransom several days' budget on a single meal there to celebrate Dan's birthday. Unfortunately, since the terrorist attacks on Mumbai in 2008, the palace only accepts diners who are also staying at the hotel. We didn't have the cash for the room and the meal, so it will have to wait until we're filthy, stinking rich. Or get hired by the British Secret Service, whichever happens first.

We settled for a boat ride that passed by the Lake Palace and headed to Jagmandir Palace, another island retreat of the maharanas. Also a boutique hotel, it's slightly more reasonable at only several hundred dollars per night. We passed that one up too, and confined our lake excursion activities to taking pictures and trying to figure out where Bond's sidekick went fishing in the film.


Click here to see photos of Udaipur

 
 
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Monkeys relaxing at the palace.
If there's anything I like more than a palace, it's a ruined palace.

Better than a ruined palace? One with monkeys.

Boy, did I love Bundi.

One day there, we trudged up the cobblestone hill from the quaint, blue-painted city to the palace, swinging the peeling red monkey stick our guest house lent us for the day. The sunny morning of a Rajasthan spring was nearly too hot for us, but it didn't seem to bother the monkeys much. They rule the ramshackle avenues of this town.

Eating breakfast at a nearby rooftop cafe, we watched a monkey nearly make off with our egg sandwiches. Across the narrow alley below our cafe, a family of macaques sneaked across the roof to some pots left by a careless housewife. One by one they dipped their inquisitive paws into the leftovers. A cunning youngster jimmied a rooftop water cistern open and took a swim. A baby and his mother scavenged a garbage heap far below.

A woman a few doors down, a laundress hanging up bright clothes, wasn't having any monkeys in her washtubs, though. She kept a slingshot handy while she worked and took accurate aim at monkeys climbing the old city walls. They avoided her.

 At the 17th century palace, wires and screens had been put up over one of the rooms with the best-preserved murals. The marbled corridors and rooftop garden were fair game though, and monkeys swung from the trees and balustrades eyeing the tourists walking into the encaged area below; a strange zoo reversal.

Farther uphill, at the 14th century fort, was where our day changed from ordinary sightseeing to living out childhood Jungle Book fantasies. The red monkey stick didn't do much to scare off the loop-tailed langur monkeys who fed on leaves in the overgrown courtyards and patrolled the maze-like hallways.

And, while Kipling didn't visualize the exploits of a boy raised by wolves  while in Bundi, he did write part of his book Kim here. Our third day in Bundi, we tried to go a little farther than the monkeys' hilltop kingdom by hiring an autorickshaw (three-wheeled taxi) to take us to some nearby villages.

The driver was willing enough, if not real sure where us crazy foreigners wanted to go. His vehicle was another matter.

 We got about 30 minutes out of town, into a thorn-tree desert landscape of ochre fields and lonely brick houses, and stopped at an intersection for a cup of hot tea at a roadside shack. While we waited for the tea Dan went around to all the turbaned men drinking tea and gossiping and took their portraits. I tried to chat to two women waiting for a bus, a conversation that mostly consisted of smiles. We all waved goodbye exaggeratedly and repeatedly, which was why it was such an anticlimax when the rickshaw wouldn't start.

Five would-be mechanics, five attempts at pushing and one at towing later we got back to Bundi one adventure richer.


**Click here to see our photos from Bundi!**