Saturday, June 19, 2004

Pakistan: Islamabad: Jack Daniels Diplomacy

There are many parties in Islamabad, but unless they are hosted by Americans or Brits, hardly any Americans ever attend. So, it is not uncommon for me to be at a party as the only American or as one of a handful. Many of the foreign diplomats here have done tours in Washington and other American cities, so they are always keen to share their stories and have me rate their "American accents" (which are always awful) and so forth. Across the board, they love the U.S. Several people, including some from Western Europe, have even gone so far as to tell me that they felt more at home in the States than in their own countries. It’s kind of neat.

At these parties, there is always robust drinking, and with the drinking comes the questions on America. These questions run the gambit, but they are rarely confrontational. These are some actual questions that have fueled lengthy debates:

"Why are there no beautiful women in America?"

"What’s the deal with West Virginians?"

"Why do Americans eat so much?"

"Why don’t the other Americans in Islamabad ever come to parties?"

"Why don’t American men control their women?"

"Why don’t Americans travel?"

And so I do my best to enlighten the masses on such important issues.

Last Friday, I went to a Norwegian pool party. There were a few Norwegians, some Brits, Pakistanis, Filipinos, Germans, an Eritrean, Dutch, Czechs, Trinidadians, and several people whose nationalities I did not know. I was the only Yank.

Almost immediately, I was approached by a portly Oxford-educated, Pakistani guy. He was a press officer for the UN. I said earlier that party discussions were rarely confrontational. Well, this was the rare exception.

Like everyone else, this guy had lived in the U.S. for a number of years and thoroughly enjoyed himself.

That said…

This guy started going on and on about the arrogance of America, and about how every single non-American hated America, and how America was the biggest terrorist nation in history, and how we had no reason being in Afghanistan and Iraq. As a UN press officer, he reads numerous news publications and apparently considers himself an expert on everything. Any time I would respond, his response to my response was always the same, "Ha, ha, ha, don’t be so na├»ve".

Periodically, the host and other guests would pass by our discussion. The passer-by would listen to a few minutes of his jabbering and tell him to quit harassing me. Then she would leave to find a better party discussion.

This guy thought he was all that, and I didn’t really care. I figure he was just an obnoxious drunk (he was a Muslim in name only). As a hilarious side note, I should mention that he will be leaving the UN press office in two weeks. He was fired for shooting his mouth off.

Anyway, he kept likening the U.S. to the Roman and Greek and British Empires, and according to him at this particular point in time we were starting our decline in history. At the height of the discussion, he explained that within 20 years all the nations of the world would unite and destroy America.

Quote: In 20 years, there will be no such thing as America or an American. Every last one will be slaughtered.

Man, this was a happenin’ party. And such delightful company.

I explained to him that even if the world did decide to try to put the hammer down on America, the notion that the whole country would be overrun and that every person would be killed was ridiculous. Using his own examples, the Roman, Greek, and British Empires may have fallen, but there still exist today a Rome, Greece, and Britain, and citizens of the same.

His source for this dooms day scenario was Nostradamus. (Pakistanis are big into astrology and prophesies.)

As the discussion was pretty much finished at this point, I told him in my best arrogant-American manner that his views were comical and that I would drop him a line in 25 years from the United States of America.

Oddly enough, by this point, I had also become his new best friend. He said he would help me go into hiding when the end was near. He would probably sell me out for a rupee, though.

Then he informed me that I simply must come to his party next weekend. And I probably will. I’ll just find someone else to talk to.

The rest of the night, I talked with other, saner people and it was a fine time.

At the point when everyone was leaving, the UN windbag came by with a parting comment for me.

"By the way, mate, your cover is terrible, and everyone knows you are working undercover."

Alrighty, then.

I recommended he lay off the pot; he gave me his business card; and I went to my car before he could amaze me any further with his brilliance.

Tuesday, June 01, 2004

India: Sweat and Dirt: Three Summer Days in Northern India

For Memorial Weekend, I took a trip to India.

As usual, there was a big party the night before – this time at the Marine House to welcome some new Marines. I didn’t do so much drinking, but I was out late anyway. I got home at 3:00 in the morning. I fell asleep without setting the alarm, and by a stroke of luck, I woke up at 6:30, with just enough time to pack before my 7:00 airport pick-up.

As I was only going to India for three days, and I was traveling light, it didn’t take long to pack.

At the airport, I got on the plane for Lahore. This plane must have been the worst looking one in the PIA fleet. The wings were all rusty and covered in bird poop. The paint was peeling. Looks aren’t everything, though, and the old bird made the flight in fine fashion.

At the airport in Lahore, there were a ton of police and extra security personnel everywhere. Turns out that a controversial Senator was on my flight.

The Consulate driver met me outside and from there we drove to the Wagah border crossing. The border was cool.

The driver dropped me off at the Pakistani side for out-processing, and I cleared customs and passport control. There was a man on the Pak side offering to change Pak rupees to Indian rupees, but I opted not to use his services. That was a good move I would later find out, since his rate was terrible. As I was finishing, a backpacker who had clearly been on the road a while came in to process through the border as well.

The driver and I walked a bit further toward the border, and then I paid him for his time and the mileage. He was a stand-up guy. When I tried to give him a tip, he told me to keep it because he thought I would maybe need the money later.

At the border, the Pakistani border guards entered me in the outgoing log book. The guard who was writing was talking as he read my passport info:

“Diplomatic, eh.”

“Yeah.”

“I think you are very young for a diplomat.”

“I guess so.”

“I always wanted to visit your country.”

“Great. Did you apply for a visa?”

“It is very difficult you know.”

“I guess you’ll just have to try and see what happens, huh?”

“You could maybe help out?”

“Sorry – there’s nothing I can do for you. I’m not so important.” (It’s true. I couldn’t have done anything for him even if I had wanted to.)

“I was only kidding around.”

And his English was so good that it did sound like he was joking. Still, it was the first of several visa requests I would get over the weekend.

We spoke a moment more on how great Pakistan was, how long I would be in India, and what a fine day it was. He told me that he would be looking for me in three days on my return to Pakistan and that hopefully I would be there at night to see the border ceremony. I didn’t tell him that I was flying back.

There was a stretch of about a hundred yards between the Indian and Pakistani gates, which I cleared and walked through to India. It was so dead there, tumbleweeds should have been blowing across the road.

On the India side, I presented my passport. There were three guards, and they started inspecting it.

One was reading the cover out loud: “D..i..p..l..o..m..a..t..i..c.” Then he and the other two had a pow-wow in Hindi.

Then back to English, “What is diplomatic?”

“It means I work in the Embassy in Islamabad.”

“Oh, yes, yes! Very good.”

Then they entered my stats in the entry book. I’m listed by my first and middle names because they didn’t read my bio page right and missed my last name.

While the one guard was writing, one of the others gave me a bottle of water. It was a re-used bottle, and it was all dirty. Breaking the first rule of travel, I drank the tap water.

A few handshakes later, I was finished with the Indian border guards. From there, I walked on down the deserted road, razor wire on the sides, to the Indian customs and passport control stop.

A little bit past the customs house, I exited the secure border perimeter. Just outside the gate, there were some small shops and restaurants and a line of taxis. Coming out of dry Pakistan, a guy immediately came up to offer me a beer. As it was 10:00 in the morning, I passed on that.

I changed some dollars and caught a cab. It was a small van and the inside was totally stripped. It reminded me of a VW van that my family had had for a while when I was growing-up.

The closest town of any size to the border is Amritsar, and it was about 30 minutes away by jalopy.

The main thing to see in Amritsar is the Golden Temple, which is the holiest temple for Sikhs. The Golden Temple sits in a pool, and the whole thing is surrounded by a white marble walkway and structure that houses a museum. There is some religious significance to bathing in the pool, I think, so all along the way, people were in the water.

You have to be barefoot and your head must be covered to enter the temple. I checked my shoes and bags at the holding area, and then I bought a scarf to wrap around my head. The boys I bought it from were laughing at my tying job, so they redid it properly for me. I didn’t realize until later that there was a big barrel of scarves that were free to use at the temple entrance. No matter though, since the handkerchief I bought cost less than a quarter.

Entering the temple, everyone had to walk through a shallow pool to cleanse the feet. Then we were free to walk around. Seeing as how it was around 116 degrees, the white marble was quite hot. There were mats laid around the whole perimeter so that people didn’t have to walk on the marble, but with everyone walking on them, they were pretty crowded. I opted to walk on the marble, and it wasn’t too bad so long as I kept moving. That said, my soles were burned when I left.

The Golden Temple was cool, and I got some great photos.

After that, I walked through town to get to the railway station. In what would get to be routine for the weekend, every taxi driver, cycle-rickshaw driver, and auto-rickshaw driver would harass me to take a ride. The attention I got was even more exaggerated since I was in India at the hottest time of the year, which meant that tourism was at its lowest point, and there were no other foreigners to harass. These drivers were so ridiculous that even when I was like half a block from the railway station, they were still offering me rides to the station. I could see the sign a few hundred meters up the way.

At the station, there was chaos. There were several ticket windows, and there were Indians queued about 10 deep at each window. All the lines were moving very slowly, and the people behind the glass were chatting and laughing and drinking tea and going on break while everyone was waiting. Strangely enough, though, no one seemed to care. When someone would actually finish their business at the window, everyone in line would rush up to try to be next in line.

Being the second person in line was advantageous to be sure, but it didn’t guarantee that that person would be the next served. People frequently forced their way to the window from well back in the line. Once someone established himself as the next customer, everyone else would queue up again and wait for the opportunity to pounce to the front of the line.

There were stray dogs sleeping all around.

I stood in one line for a long time before someone explained to me that I had to first go to a different line and write my reservation request on a slip of paper.

Fine. I got out of line and went to the inquiry line. After an hour of jostling in this line, I got to the window, only to be told that the train I wanted was full. Then someone else explained to me that I didn’t need to stand in the inquiry line at all. Rather, I just needed to pick the train I wanted from the schedule displayed on the wall and write its information on a piece of paper.

Paper in hand, I got in another line. Turns out, it was for people with disabilities only, so I went to another line.

A full three hours after I came into the ticketing area, I got to the window, only to be told that I was in the wrong place altogether. I had been on the side for advanced reservations, which I didn’t need since I was trying to travel on the same day I was buying the ticket. The ticket guy pointed to a ticket window on the other side of the building where there were hardly any people. Doh!

I went over, and at this window, the people were acting a bit crazy. Here, it took like 5 seconds per transaction. And every 5 seconds, the crowd would swarm in to the window. The person purchasing kept getting sandwiched and some people couldn’t get out of the crowd even after they got their tickets. When I got to the window, the anxious crowd was definitely antsy. I didn’t exactly know the train I needed and I took a second or two counting out the right money. I probably took 30 seconds, but compared to the others, it was an eternity.

I got a ticket from Amritsar to Agra in an unair-conditioned, unreserved car with wooden benches. The ticket cost less than $3.50 for a trip that would cover several hundred kilometers over the course of 17 hours.

I went to the platform and waited for the train. Several shoe-shine boys came by, but I wasn’t interested. One stayed for a conversation. He was duly impressed with my Hindi, which is basically the same as Urdu (spoken anyway). Unfortunately, though, I didn’t know much Urdu, so we spoke in English mostly. He was laughing at silly things as we spoke. After a bit, we started attracting some other people. A group of girls came, and they kept showing me small pictures of Bollywood stars.

“Sir, this is such-and-such. He’s very famous.”

So I’d respond, “Great; I’ve never heard of him.”

And another photo would appear.

The whole point of this exercise was not apparent to me at first, but once I realized, it cracked me up. They were actually selling wallets, and the pictures they were showing were those photos that come pre-loaded in the photo slots. It was a novel approach, I guess. Who cares about the quality of the wallet, so long as the movie star photo is a good one?

I didn’t buy a wallet.

After a bit, the wallet girls and the shoe shine boys left and other passengers started talking with me. One old guy saw my ticket. He was like, “Sir, this is very bad. You need to get a reservation.”

At this point, I was slightly concerned, but only slightly.

I asked him what was so bad, and he told me: “The unreserved car has too much people, and it’s so much hot. It’s very bad.”

I told him that it didn’t matter, and besides there were no more reservations available. He insisted I could manage one if I had a foreign passport, but I didn’t care to try.

The train pulled into the station shortly thereafter.

As the train was slowing, people were jumping on and off. Indians are fond of leaping on and off moving trains, but who can blame them. It's fun.

The unreserved cars are the cars where the teeming masses ride. No one ever asked for our tickets in the open cars, so I think most of the people were probably riding for free. In the cars, there were long benches on one side and on top were bunks. Then there was an aisle and on the other side there was a row of single seats. Everyone piled in and I got one of the single seats. The car was packed. All the benches were full, and the bunks were also lined with people. There were people lying in the luggage racks. I was sitting pretty, what with the single seat and all.

The way it was arranged, every other row faced each other. The guy who was facing me made a big deal about having us each sit diagonally so that we could each prop our feet up on half of the other person’s chair. He was shorter than me, so this arrangement was more comfortable for him, I think. I kept putting my feet on the floor and he would motion for me to put them back on the seat. I think he thought that I was trying to be polite by not putting my feet on his chair or something.

Leaving Amritsar, much of the scenery was rice paddies and whatnot. It was nice. It was a bit hot in the car, but not unbearable. What got me, though, was that some of the passengers actually chose to close their windows. There is no way that anyone in that car was too cold.

This particular train was very slow, and it stopped like every half hour at a town. Sometimes it would also stop for no apparent reason well away from any towns. At most of the stops, vendors would descend on the train selling all kinds of food and drink. It was great service and cheap to boot. I had several sodas and bottles of water, but only a few of the cooked snacks. The reason wasn’t because I thought I would get sick. Rather, I was trying to avoid having to use the train bathroom, and not because the bathroom was disgusting, which it was. No, I couldn’t use the bathroom because that would mean I’d lose my seat, and that was not a good option.

At some quick stops, there were children along the tracks filling cups of water from big tubs. When the train would stop, they’d run along with the cups and give them to the hands that were poking out of the windows. It was like passing out water to marathoners. After the people were finished, they’d throw the cups back on the tracks, and the water boys would collect them and serve more water.

Aside from the vendors at the stations, there was a constant stream of vendors coming through the car during the trip. This got a bit annoying. These vendors would come into a section of the car and shout out what they were selling repeatedly, move on a little and do the same thing. So, for example, some guy would stand in front of you and shout, “Chai (tea), chai, chai, chai, chai, …” an obnoxious number of times, and then move slowly down the car. By the time he would eventually go to the next car, you’d have heard him shouting “chai” for 10 solid minutes.

One guy gave a show of some bolts of fabric and some table linens. It was super cheap and everyone seemed impressed, but he didn’t sell anything in the area I was at.

There were a few beggars as well. One women who looked about 12 years old was very pregnant. She didn’t say a word, but stood right next to me holding a cup for several minutes. Her lack of talking made it easy to ignore her. That may sound harsh, but paying a beggar doesn’t usually end the nagging anyway.

At several of the stops, monkeys would come out on the tracks. The passengers would throw food out, and the monkeys would sit on the steel rails and eat the food just like tiny humans. I got some pictures of this.

The whole train ride, there were eyes on me, old and young, men and women. A lot of the children looked like they had walked straight out of the Indiana Jones mine scene. Of course, staring in general did seem to be the main source of entertainment in the car. Whereas there had been constant conversation on the train in China, here nobody was talking much at all. That was probably due to the heat and the overall discomfort.

I thought the train was packed initially, but at each stop, more people got on than departed. At the peak capacity, there were people lying under seats, sitting in the floors and aisles, and hanging out the door. All the seats and bunks were packed. Even my single seat was supporting 3 people. And even then, people kept asking me to scoot over some more. I was already wedged between the wall and other people, and to make any more room I’d have had to remove my pelvis. I drew the line at that naturally.

What was amazing to me was that packed like sardines with no AC in the hot Indian sun, there was hardly an odor at all. I would have thought there would be a cloud of BO to end all BO, but there wasn’t.

Another thing I couldn’t help but notice was the total lack of modesty of the people who lived along the train tracks. The whole ride, and especially at morning and especially around the towns, there were people (men, women, children) squatting on the tracks, dropping loads. Some would face the train, some would face away. None seemed the least bit self-conscious. I mean, they were literally on the tracks. Most didn’t even go off in the grass, and none bothered seeking a bush or tree for concealment. Of those who weren’t engaged in bowel movements, there were plenty of people peeing or bathing or dressing or adjusting underwear or scratching or whatever else struck their fancies, out for everyone to see. Bizarre...

On the train and in most of the places I visited, trash disposal was directly on the ground wherever you happened to be. Trash was constantly flying out of the train windows, and the tracks had a good deal of garbage on them. There were obviously people who collected the trash, though, or else it would have been a lot worse. The towns were all filled with trash, and huge wild pigs were roaming around eating from the trash heaps. There were also tons of cows and buffalo roaming around the trash piles, and in the city streets. Plenty of stray dogs too, but hardly a stray cat for some reason.

To get back to the story, that night it was hot; they didn’t dim the lights; and my butt was mighty sore. Sleep didn’t come easily. I managed a few hours total.

The next morning, we arrived at my stop, Agra, the city of the Taj Mahal.

As soon as I stood up, several people rushed for my seat.

I left and caught an auto-rickshaw to the Taj. The driver was terrible. For starters, he drove like a turtle. All the other auto-rickshaws were speeding by us. Even the cycle-rickshaws were passing us. He would also stop constantly. He couldn’t seem to drive and talk, so if I asked a question or if he thought of something he wanted to say, he’d pull over and stop. I made the mistake of hiring him for the day, so I couldn’t ditch him after that.

Our first stop was the Taj Mahal. I went inside, and he waited outside. Before I went in, he gave me all kinds of warnings about the fake guides and the overpriced hawkers and blah, blah, blah. He just kept going on and on.

The entrance fee was pretty hefty at over $17. At the entrance guards searched all the visitors and their belongings. Video cameras and other electronics weren’t allowed, so that was the main thing they were looking for.

I had a little trouble for a different reason altogether. When they searched my bag, they latched on to the Golden Temple handkerchief that I had purchased in Amritsar. I guess the Taj is Muslim, and they didn’t want Sikh things inside. Whatever the problem was, there were 3 guards discussing it. I told them that they could discard the handkerchief if they liked, but they eventually returned it and ordered me not to wear it inside. Not a problem.

The Taj is one of the top attractions of the world, but it’s one of those things, where once you look for an hour or so, that’s enough. Beyond that, there’s not much to do. I suppose if you are really into it, you could spend a considerable amount of time hearing the stories and learning about the architecture of the place and all that, but I was there purely for the visual.

Shortly after I entered, I was approached by the Taj’s gardener. He offered to show me the best places for photographs. We were tromping all around and I got some awesome photos. I could tell he was legitimately the gardener because as we were going around, he kept blowing a whistle at people, scolding them for getting in the fountains or for getting into the plants. Eventually, he finished the photo tour, and I tipped him. And of course he wanted just a few more rupees than I offered.

Once he left, I was approached by several groups (some more than once) of young men who wanted to have their pictures taken with me. They said that this was their gift to me. That’s fine and well, but I wasn't planning to save most of their photos, I’m afraid. Since I had a digital camera, though, I didn’t mind posing with them. I offered to e-mail them copies of the pics, but not a single one had an e-mail address. One suggested that I could courier the photos to them, but I wasn't interested in that.

As I was about to leave the Taj, 2 other young men approached me. One was like, “You would like to talk to us, I think.”

I didn’t really want to, but there was no harm in it.

We made some small talk. Turns out that they were from Amritsar and that they were taking a break to tour the Taj. Their main mission in Agra was finding a college at which to study engineering. They told me that there were two good engineering schools in the area, and they wanted me to help them pick a program. I don’t know if this was all true or if there was some scam that they were building up to. Regardless, I gave them the sage advice to pick the program with the best internship possibilities.

Having dealt with that, I left to meet my rickshaw guy. I was intercepted once more by camera hams wanting to have their pictures taken, and then I escaped the Taj.

After a quick, cheap lunch, I went to Agra Fort. Outside there were all kinds of people hawking all kinds of things. There were also plenty of guides pitching their services. When I refused to hire them, they told me I was just wasting my time to go in the Fort unguided. I was willing to risk it.

The Fort was a large red sandstone structure housing 14 palaces or something like that. It was nice to look around, and there was a nice view of the Taj. Inside, it was very similar to Lahore Fort.

As I left the Fort, all the vendors zoomed over. I didn’t want any of the junk, so I expressed no interest. The vendors got into fierce one-sided bargaining sessions, though.

“Only 150 rupees, sir. 50 rupees. 20 rupees. 10 rupees only!”

So, there was a guy trying to sell me leather bullwhips, one trying to sell me mini wooden chess sets, one trying to sell me books of erotic (kama sutra) postcards, and one trying to sell bangles, all for 10 rupees each. That’s like 23 cents.

After the Fort, we went to a travel office, and I booked a bus ticket back to Delhi. The bus wasn’t scheduled to depart for a few hours, so the rickshaw driver took me shopping.

The shopping in Agra was terrible. Everyone was trying to scam, and the prices were outrageous.

Agra is famous for its inlaid marble work, much of which decorates the Taj, so we went to a marble workshop. The tour was less than exhilarating. It consisted of a guy grinding a piece of lapis on a wheel into the shape of a flower petal. His assistant was standing by to inlay it into a marble tabletop as part of a pattern. The guide wasn’t the usual stone-grinder, so during the demonstration, he pulled out a piece of wood with samples of all the different stones and shells and minerals used for the inlay. He asked if I knew all the names of the stones, so I named the few I knew and asked him what the rest were. He didn’t know. When he asked if I knew them all, he wasn’t just giving me first stab at it.

Of course, the main attraction wasn’t the workshop. It was the showroom. Since the tour was so lame, I was getting grilled to buy something in no time flat. There was no chance. The prices were sky-high. For a set of 6 marble coasters with lapis flowers inlaid, he was asking $200, but would “bargain” down to $100. They must have had solid gold centers that he forgot to mention.

The next place the driver thought was a must-see was a carpet factory. I had no intention of buying there either, but I sat through the boring tour and the sales pitch. The prices were awful, and I didn’t care for the carpets anyway.

After that, I told the driver not to take me to anymore workshop tours. He said he knew of another good place with a variety of things, and it wasn't a workshop.

We went and, surprise, surprise, it was a tourist trap handicraft store. The driver and I were having a clear disconnect.

I explained to him that I didn’t want to go to places that were in business solely because of tourists. I wanted to go to the open street bazaars. He said he understood. And the next place we went was another marble showroom.

I was about to strangle him. There were like 2 hours until my bus departed, but I told him to drop me at the bus stop anyway. He was like, “It is too early, sir. I have one more store you will like.” He clearly meant to say that he had one more store he would like me to shop at so he could get a commission.

I skipped his last gem and went to the travel office. From there, I walked around and looked at the town and the street-side stores on my own, without the albatross in the rickshaw.

Close to the time I was supposed to catch the bus, I went back to the office. I was the only person who would be getting on at this stop. A few minutes after I came in, one of the employees came running in and told me that I had to hurry if I was going to catch the bus. I thought he was saying that I needed to get to the street corner or something. That wasn’t it.

He had a racing motorcycle outside and told me to get on. I got on the back, and he started flying through the streets like a maniac. The air was hot and full of dust and grime. We were going so fast that my eyeballs were getting sandblasted – and I was wearing glasses. He didn’t have anything over his eyes, and I was wondering how well he could see. We eventually got to the rendezvous point, but after several minutes, the bus hadn’t shown.

The guy got on his cell phone, and when he hung up, he was like, “We must go now.” So we went flying back through town and stopped the bus at another intersection.

I had booked a tourist class bus (meaning padded seats) with no AC. I was the last passenger, so I wedged into the last seat available, in the middle of the last row. The temperature on the bus was OK when it was moving, but having been outside the whole day, I was sweating like mad for the first half an hour. I looked like I’d just stepped out of the shower.

I caught the bus at 5:00, and the trip was supposed to take 4 hours.

So, we were cruising down the road, and the driving was something else. The bus was constantly lurching and jerking and swerving and abruptly stopping. The driver was constantly on the horn.

It started getting dark, and I noticed that we seemed to be going from the main road into a town. Then a tour guide stood up and starting talking in Hindi. A young man sitting near me later told me what was happening. His name was something I couldn’t catch, but his nickname was easy enough – Viki. The bus conductor had asked the people if they wanted to stop at Mathura, the birthplace of Krishna. As they were all Hindu, there was no question.

The bus parked, and we had 30 minutes to visit the temple. Cameras weren’t allowed, so I reluctantly left mine on the bus. Everyone piled out, and we walked down to the temple. Viki walked with me and guided me – touch this stone, look at this statue of so-and-so, ring this bell, put your shoes here, and so forth. We viewed the Krishna temple and the centerpiece statue of Krishna and his parents. Then we saw his birthplace, which turned out to be a jail cell.

After that, we each had a Coke and looked at the temple shops. There was a little communication problem since we couldn’t understand each other’s English all the time.

As we were walking back to the bus, we stopped to look at the huge (like the size of a city block) bathing area the monks had once used. It no longer held water. At about this point, a young hawker decided that we, or more specifically I, needed to buy his souvenir postcards. He followed us all the way back to the bus which was like half a mile away. I was initially brushing him off, but then I just ignored him. Viki was berating him, but he couldn’t shake him.

We got back to the bus, and what did I hear out the window? Of course – the little postcard kid. I told him no once again. And he stood there yelling for a while. Then, he upped the ante. He actually got a guy with an ice cream cart to pull up next to the bus so he could climb up. So this little kid was at window level, trying to sell these postcards for all he was worth. It was hilarious. I couldn’t turn him away at that point, due to his tenacity and his entertainment value, so I gave him some rupees. I didn’t want the postcards, though. He was happy, and amazingly, he left. Finally.

Viki had been sitting a few seats up from me, but he made some people move so I could sit next to him.

As we were waiting for the rest of the passengers to get back, I saw a humorous sign on the back of a different bus, and I took a picture. When Viki saw my camera, he was fascinated. He wanted to see how it worked so I let him take some pictures. Then he reviewed all the ones I had taken earlier. He never did quite understand how it worked, though. After I had explained that it was digital and that the pictures had to be loaded on a computer, he said he understood. Then he turned right around and asked me where the film was loaded. I changed the subject.

Viki looked about 12 years old, but he was a sophomore in college, studying commerce. He was from southern India, and he and his parents and two brothers were touring in the north. The middle brother didn’t talk with me, but the younger one did. He looked like he was 5 years old. In actuality, he was in 7th grade.

It was interesting talking with Viki, but he seemed to think I was loaded. When he saw my camera, he was like, “you must be rich”. When he saw my Lonely Planet, he was like, “a book – you must be rich”. When he heard I was just visiting India for a long weekend, he was like, “you must be rich”. He was further convinced of my wealth because he had a cousin who went to work in Houston and he was pulling down $60,000 a year. He was the millionaire of the family. I told him that I wasn’t as rich as his cousin, but I don’t think he believed me.

During this conversation, he mentioned to me that he had been pick-pocketed at the Taj Mahal for 12,000 rupees (around $270). I could sense that he was building a case to later hit me up for money. I told him that his loss was a shame, and we dropped the subject.

At one point, I asked him who had finally become the new Prime Minister. He told me Ms. Sonia [Gandhi]. I already knew that she had turned it down, so I told him. He told me he didn’t care about the news, so he hadn’t bothered to watch.

He showed me the bull whip he had bought from the same vendor who had hit me up at Agra Fort. A lot of the other passengers had the whips also. Viki had paid 20 rupees. I didn’t tell him I could have gotten it for 10.

When I asked him what he got it for, he replied, “It’s very good for beating.”

I added, “Oh, yeah, animals.”

And Viki was like, “uh, yeah, for the animals.”

Maybe he bought it to beat beggars or for some kinky purpose.

We made small talk for a bit more, and then the tour guide started talking in Hindi again. He was explaining things and telling about things we were driving by. I couldn’t understand much at all, and Viki wasn’t bothering to translate.

Soon we stopped at another temple area. This time it was some holy area where there were supposed to be 1,000 Krishna temples or something like that. It was dark and the whole bus trouped out with the guide. Every few minutes, he would gather the group into a huddle so he could explain something. To break the huddle each time, he would say some phrase and the people would shout, “Yah!” Sometimes there were two phrases and two ‘yah’s.

(I thought it was funny because the “Yah!” they were shouting reminded me of the Simpsons episode where Sideshow Bob is hanging on the bottom of the Simpsons’s car so that he can get to Bart and kill him. Homer doesn’t know Bob is hanging under the car, and he happens to ask the kids if he should drive through a cactus patch for fun. Lisa shouts, “Yah!” and it sounded exactly like these Hindus.)

Once we came upon another group of Hindus as they were breaking from a huddle. They responded with “Yeah” instead of “Yah”. I guess they were from a different region than our group.

As we were walking through the narrow streets, Viki whispered over in awe, “This is the very street Lord Krishna played in one thousand years ago.” We stopped at a few small temples and at some significant tree. Everyone was photographing it.

The highlight (for the Hindu’s anyway) of this stop, however, was some service. We all had to take off our shoes and wash our hands and feet. Then we went inside; everyone had to sit Indian-style; and the temple guy yanked open the curtain covering a Krishna statue. It was neat enough, I suppose. Then the temple guy kept talking and talking. I don’t know if he was reciting a text or giving a sermon or talking about the history of the place. Whatever he was explaining took long enough. After he finished talking, he went around the room asking people their names and where they were from. They would shout out the info, and he would write it in a book. Viki explained that he was just maintaining the register, so I shouted out my info when it was my turn. Next, all the married couples made donations and received yellow-orange sashes. The power went out several times during these last parts, and when it did, they would do some Hindu prayer song.

Eventually, another group was waiting at the door, and we were finished, so we left. On the way out, everyone had to go by the temple guy and take some “food of the gods” before leaving. It was large crystals of sugar.

Outside the main temple, there was an alter thing full of flowers. Each visitor had to walk around it once and put his head in the flowers. Then he would be asked to make a donation for the poor children. Then the monk guy would put a red dot on his forehead. When it was my turn, I told him I was Christian. I wasn’t worried about him converting me or anything silly like that since you can’t accidentally change religions, but I didn’t want to be doing anything that would be insulting to the Hindus. He said it didn’t matter, and he put my red dot on.

After that, we put on our shoes and went back to the bus. There were monkeys all over the place, and the tour guide warned us that they could get mean.

Before we got to the bus, a lot of us stopped at the toilet. It was a real hovel, but it was a pay toilet nonetheless – two rupees a customer.

As the bus was about to take off, one guy was still missing. He had been sitting behind me. Some passengers told the guide that the man was missing, and he basically said tough luck. Viki agreed that it was no big deal since the guy could just ride in on one of the many other buses headed to Delhi. It seemed pretty cold-busted to me, though, since the other buses wouldn’t have his bags. Anyway, the guy appeared just as we were pulling out of the parking lot.

A little way down the road, we stopped for dinner. It was like 11:00 PM. So much for arriving in Delhi at 9:00.

We went up to the restaurant, and Viki asked if I liked chicken. I told him I did, so he ordered me a curry chicken dish. No one seemed to mind, but I wished he hadn’t done that since every other person there was a Hindu vegetarian. I like chicken, but I like veggie as well.

The food was good, but the soda I tried wasn’t all that. It was a kind called Thums Up (yes, that’s how it’s spelled). It was a Coke product, and it tasted like prunes. No joke.

After dinner, we took off for the last leg into Delhi. The same guy who was last before was last again. Again he barely made it before the bus pulled off.

Since it was dark, it was a little cooler. The driving was also crazier. After maybe half an hour, there was a loud pop. We had blown a tire, but the driver didn’t seem to know or care. Eventually, he pulled the bus over, and there were complications.

We were hobbled on the side of the road for 2 hours, and it was miserable. It was very hot without air blowing, but I still faded in and out of sleep. The driver and some of the guys kept flagging down other vehicles to help with the repair. They didn’t have a jack, so they cantilevered the bus on sticks they found in the woods.

Eventually, they fixed the tire, and we rolled into Delhi at 3:30 in the morning (a far cry from the scheduled arrival time). As we were nearing the drop point, Viki and I exchanged e-mails. Then he hit me up for money since he was supposedly broke from the alleged Taj pick-pocketing. I gave him the equivalent of about $10, and he was grateful.

I didn’t have a room booked in Delhi, and Viki was concerned. He offered for me to stay at the hotel with his family, but I declined. We went our separate ways.

Being hotel-less, I was walking around Old Delhi in the wee hours. There were rickshaws lined up all along the roads with the drivers sleeping inside. There were some seedy looking people walking around. I caught a rickshaw that was in service and went to the Delhi train station. I figured there would be a cheap available hotel there.

Near the train station, there were tons more of the sleeping rickshawers. I got out and walked some more. I passed the prostitutes of Old Delhi. They were dressed like regular Indian women in saris, but they had on a load of lipstick. Of course, they called out to me as I walked by. A rickshaw driver was driving by, and he did the wagging eyebrows thing at me. I motioned that he should go see the ladies himself, and I moved on.

In all the hotel lobbies, the staff were sacked out in the floor. I woke up some people in one, and ended up in a very basic room with anemic AC. It only cost $9, though.

It was in the hotel that I came to a horrible realization. My camera had been stolen. (Please join me in a moment of silence.)

And worse yet, I was sure that Viki had done it. He had worked me for 9 hours, and I had been a world-class sucker. In hindsight, there were plenty of clues: The fact that he kept telling me to put my bags (with my camera inside) up in the overhead compartment in order to be more comfortable, the fact that he had supposedly been robbed clean at the Taj and needed money, the fact that he thought I was loaded and probably wouldn’t miss the camera, the fact that he had been so interested in the camera. What’s worse, I had met his family; and we had exchanged e-mails; and he had shown me around at the temples and all. What’s worse than that was how I had shown him how to use the camera and how I had given him money. I’m curious if he had ID’d me as his mark from the start, or if the opportunity was just too great to pass up.

Anyway, when I got home, I e-mailed him about the camera, asking him to at least mail the memory chip to me. While I didn’t really expect a response, the e-mail address he gave me didn’t bounce back, so it must be someone’s, if not his. Now I’ve come to terms with the whole situation – it’s a lesson learned, and a good opportunity to upgrade cameras.

The night it happened, however, I spent a lot of time thinking about my lost camera and my lost photos.

In the hotel, I took a shower in the tiny bathroom. The shower soaked the whole room – toilet, sink, floor, and walls.

Then I went to sleep. Checkout was at noon. I didn’t have a watch, and there was no clock in the room. When I woke up, there was light coming in the window and noise out in the street. I got dressed and went to check-out. In the lobby, I saw it was only 6:30. The clerk was looking at me like I was a freak. I had taken the room for approximately 2 hours. Oh well.

That morning, I walked through several huge markets which were all still closed since it was so early. All along the street, people were dressing and eating and grooming and using the bathroom out in the open. Everywhere I went, there was keen interest among the taxi and rickshaw drivers.

Around 9:00, I decided it was late enough for stuff to be opening, so I set out for the Red Fort, which was the main thing I wanted to see in Delhi. I got a bike rickshaw, and we agreed on a price of 100 rupees. Then we took off. Again, I got the slowest guy in town. As we were putting along, other bike rickshaws loaded down with people and supplies and with much scrawnier drivers were flying by us. My guy was pathetic except on the downhill when all he had to do was man the brakes. Even then he wasn’t too swooft. He actually ran into a bull. The bull groaned and took a few quick steps. Everyone was staring at us.

When we got to the Fort, the price started changing. Now he wanted 150 rupees since he claimed he had taken me the long way. I told him that was his problem, but I paid him anyway.

Unfortunately, it was Monday and the Fort was closed.

I walked back through the markets and wandered around.

Later that morning, I hired another auto-rickshaw driver for the rest of the afternoon. At first, he took me on a quick tour of the city. Then he tried to take me to the Delhi Museum, but since it was Monday, it was also closed. Same with the Gandhi Museum. I had no choice but to try shopping again.

He took me to a few handicraft places. They all had the marble work and carpets and paintings and textiles. I bought some things at the first few places, even though the prices weren’t that great. They were, however, much, much better than in Agra.

The problem with most of these places was that they were selling things that I could get cheaper in Pakistan. They would all insist that the things in Pakistan were lesser quality and so forth, but that was a bunch of bunk. First, since Pakistan and India were the same country only 50 years ago, they naturally share many of the same handicrafts and would presumably each take pride in the work. Second, since they border each other, even if a craft were exclusively Indian, it would make perfect sense that it would be available in Pakistan – and probably cheaply to boot. I think that the store keepers in Delhi were just determined to gouge me, and they probably thought I was just bluffing about Pakistan.

At one of these places, I was looking at some things that were nice but too expensive. I told the woman as much and she came down a little. One thing for sure was that she didn’t want me to leave empty handed. When the price wasn’t working out, I told her that since I was American, I already had much more junk than I needed and that her prohibitive price was actually a great help as she was saving me from frivolous buying.

She was like, “But in India, we have a saying, ‘God wants you to spend your money and be happy’”.

Maybe she meant that Indian merchants have that saying. Anyway, I offered the old counter argument, “But, the man with the most toys still dies”.

To which she reverted, “OK, but you’ll be sorry once you leave without this”.

It was a fun bit of merchant banter, but I didn’t buy the items in question.

In that same shop, I was begged to have a look at the carpet guy’s selection. His pieces were OK, but nothing special. I turned to leave, and he started getting needy. I was supposedly his first customer of the day, and there was some superstition that the first customer dictated the way the rest of the day would go. He kept claiming that he had to sell to me as the first customer, or he wouldn’t make a sale the rest of the day. I finally pried myself free from his shop and told him, “Sorry, but tomorrow’s another day”.

I didn’t get too many souvenirs – just a handwoven shirt, some marble coasters (not at Agra prices), and some tribal bronze animal statues.

When we left that store, I went to lunch with my driver at his favorite restaurant. It was a small hole-in-the-wall with 4 plastic chairs. It was tasty, and the driver picked up the tab. Instead of just being appreciative for his gesture, I found myself thinking that I must be overpaying him.

India is one of the world leaders in fabric and clothing production, so I told the driver I wanted to see some of the clothing and fabric stores. He took me to a place. I walked in and walked out almost immediately. It was a handicraft store selling the exact same things as the stores he had taken me to earlier. I told him that that was not what I was looking for. Then he pointed out that there was some fabric and some clothing inside. So I clarified that I wanted only machine-made cloth and clothing. He understood, supposedly, and we ended up at a boutiquey place. It had machine-made clothing alright, but I also wanted cheap not Armani, so that didn’t work.

After the driver took me to 3 more handicraft stores, I told him that it was time for me to pay him is fee and get a new ride. Instead of hiring another knuckle head, though, I had him drop me off at the main bazaar that I had walked through in the morning before it was open. It had more of what I was looking for. I didn’t stay there long because I had to get to the airport to fly back to Islamabad.

I hailed a rickshaw and after some time, we were at the airport, where I met up with several other embassy people who had been on their own trips to Delhi. After a bit of a flight delay, we were back in Islamabad.

Sure, everyone and his uncle had tried to scam me, I didn’t have a camera or any photos, (who knows, Viki may come through in the end – yeah right), and my butt was still in agony from that train ride, but all in all, it was not a bad trip.