Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Perilous Road to Agra

It was on the road to the Taj Mahal that I thought I would die.

If you get nervous passing on the wrong side of the road, do not ride in a car on India’s highways – take a train. Over there, it is not enough to pass the odd camel cart, autorickshaw, elephant or truck. A driver must also pass a car passing a slower vehicle (or animal) if possible. What that works out to is being three-abreast on a two-lane highway.

And the other side is doing the same thing.

My friends Deon and Peter were sharing my experience, but being Iraq War vets, they were taking it better. I eventually settled down as we screamed past fields so thick with the smoke from cooking fires that the trees at their far edges appeared as specters.

I was smack in the middle of third-world nowhere. I found it ironic that to get to one of the most beautiful buildings in the world, I had to pass through ugly poverty, where farmers in filthy clothes with leathery skin sharpened their axes by grinding them on the pavement and camel carts were almost as common as private cars.

But this was one of the reasons I had come to India. It is unlike going to Europe, which is like going to an American city where the inhabitants speak a different language. I wanted to get completely out of my comfort zone, and I did.

Our driver pulled to the side of the road for food. Even out there, Mountain Dew and Doritos were available. We had some of the delicious “ready-made” tea (loaded with cream and sugar), and got back into the SUV.

Unlike most of the vehicles I rode in in India, this one had seatbelts, and I was very thankful for that. Our driver also had an illuminated plastic statue of some god or other on his dashboard, which is a common practice. Maybe it had something to do with my survival.

Deon asked our driver to put on some music, and I cringed at the thought of hearing high-pitched, screeching noises, but it was actually very nice, a mix of current pop music and Punjabi folk music.

We had to stop at a toll booth, and while our driver was paying, a man wearing a beanie, a shawl and a shotgun slung over his back walked up to my window. He stared at me, unblinking, and I wondered if he wanted a bribe. Then his face broke out in a toothy grin and he waved at me. So I smiled and waved back. Light-skinned, blonde-haired people are very uncommon out there, and I wondered if I might be the first one he’d seen up close.

Just after the checkpoint, our side of the road was closed. In the States, that would be cause for a signalman stopping one direction until the other had passed. Not so in India. In India, it’s a free-for-all. And the best part is that there were no signs to warn the other drivers.

Fortunately their trucks are painted bright colors and heavily decorated. They can’t be missed.

Wondering how American drivers would handle that situation, I turned around and saw a bus behind us. The word “Panicker's” was painted on the windshield, and a banner reading, “Welcome” was hung underneath that. I thought it fitting.

We eventually reached the Taj Mahal. It was absolutely worth the trip there and back, especially since I still had a pulse at the end.

(For my experience at the Taj Mahal, keep checking back. It will be up in a few weeks.)

Monday, March 24, 2008

World Cup Celebration

In the 30 minutes it took us to check into our hotel and get situated, Munich went from a ghost town to a carnival.

Game One of the 2006 World Cup had just been won by the Germans in Munich, and everyone was out to celebrate.

Two blocks from my quiet hotel near the English Garden the crowds swarmed the thoroughfares, which had all been shut down for the occasion. Soccer jerseys and national flags shone brilliantly under the streetlights. It was like they had come out of the woodwork – everyone was represented.

American sports teams can't win a championship without a riot breaking out, and that was what I expected. But the opposite occurred. I watched Brazilians loosely marching past Germans, French, Costa Ricans, Americans, English and a host of other nationalities. But everyone was more interested in sharing a drink than throwing a punch.

Standing with my back to a small park, I heard a noise behind me and whirled around. A young German man staggered toward me, a German flag painted on his cheek. He held two of the wonderful 1-liter glass beer steins. He made it a few steps past me and looked around, as if he was supposed to meet someone. He apparently gave up, because he simply shouted “Prost!” and banged the steins together. One shattered, so he shrugged, dropped it and took a hit from the one that was still intact before walking on.

I saw the Mexican fans and mingled with them for a bit, happy to use my Spanish. I paraded around with them, watching German cops showing themselves to keep the peace, but not having to do anything. Someone had started one of the European soccer songs and a fan kicked a ball to one of the cops. He gamely juggled it a few times before another fan took it away and dribbled down the center of the six-lane street.

It occurred to me that something was wrong. I was at what I imagined was the biggest party Munich had seen in some time (I could hear the sounds of revelry from blocks away), and I was without beverage. Fortunately, the Germans are ever close to their excellent beer, so I bought a Lagerbier Hell because I thought the name was funny and joined the crowd again.

Out of the corner of my eye, I heard a bunch of shouting and saw people running around in circles. Was this the fight I had been wary of earlier?

No. It was about 30 German students who had spilled out of a bar touting “exotische drinks” and now stood in the middle of one of the tiny alleys – which were the only vehicle routes open at the time. The ringleader raised his beer, and they all knelt down. He shouted what I took to be a soccer cheer in German, then counted ein, zwei, drei. Then his followers jumped up and danced around, chugging their beers.

And they let one car through. Then they repeated the process. I moved closer and saw that they all laughed hysterically, their cheeks glowing from the alcohol. They repeated the revolution several times before a carload of Portuguese were stopped. In the middle of the chant, a huge Portuguese flag appeared out of one of the car’s windows. The Germans laughed as they finally let the car go and shouted, “We’ll see you in the semifinals!”

All good things must come to an end, and as two columns of Polizei in green combat uniforms and black vests marched toward the impromptu roadblock, I stuck around to see if it would end peacefully or in teargas.

Using the logic the human brain unleashes only after considerable alcohol consumption, the ringleader calmly explained why it was absolutely necessary that they continue. Caught up in the festive mood, the police officer allowed them to continue, but kept most of the partiers on the sidewalk and ensured that about 10 cars could bass between songs.

The party started to break up after another hour or so, and I headed back to my room. Soccer fans now sat at outdoor tables, finishing the last of the night’s beers. Someone had thrown confetti all over. Broken glass lay everywhere along with the other evidence of partying.

I saw a couple of guys in lederhosen helping an almost-unconscious comrade into the backseat of a car before I stepped into my hotel and dropped into bed.

And by 10 the next morning, the streets were spotless, with only the most stubborn piece of confetti attesting to the fact that the previous night had been real. That’s German efficiency.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

The Tower on the Rhine

I had to climb it. I’d built forts as a kid, so when I saw a real one, I had to explore it. Never mind that I’d done that for much of the past week. The Rhine River is full of towers and castles as it winds through Germany, and I wanted to see as many as I could.

I stared up at the tower, which loomed above a small park, its masonry strong, but showing its age. In the shadow of the centuries-old building, children slid down a slide and played on a swing set. The small town spread out below the hill.

The oaken door was invitingly open, and I stepped through, to the chagrin of my family, who didn’t seem to care as much as I did to climb another tower. Aware of their reluctance, I paid the entrance fee (50 cents per person) and started climbing.

The tower’s many levels were a museum of medieval weaponry and artifacts. Sets of black armor hung along a wall, pikes and halberds standing between them. Swords, daggers and crossbows were displayed in glass cases in the center of the square rooms. I think there were some butter churns and pottery and junk too, but who has time to look at that when there’s a battleaxe in the next case?

My parents and sister were softening up to this attraction not listed in any of our guidebooks, and were actually slowing me down (because they wanted to see the butter churns and pots).

On the top floor, I passed a small alcove where the curator sat, reading a magazine. He came out to talk to us, overjoyed to practice his excellent English. He asked us the usual questions – where we were from, how long we were in Germany, etc. We made some small talk, then he asked us to wait and scurried off.

When he returned, he held an old leather-bound book in his hands. He set it down on an ancient-looking table and opened it.

“I found this a few years ago when I was cleaning,” he said. It was the original guestbook from when the tower was opened in the 1920s.

“You see,” he continued, “they go all the way. There are many Americans in here.” He flipped through page after page, and there were, indeed, many Brits, Americans, Germans, French and Italians, among other nationalities.

“Then we had a problem,” he announced, turning to an entry dated 1940. It was the last entry until 2002, when they started again in earnest. It was as if the intervening years had never happened. There were new entries from Brits, Americans, Germans, French and Italians. I smiled and signed my name and the date of my visit.

The final level of the tower was its roof. I stood between two of the ramparts and took in the view. The cloudless sky was a brilliant blue, contrasting with the stark green banks of the river, which were dotted with buildings and farms, crops growing on the gentle slopes.

It was easy to see how the tower could be used to exert power. Sitting on a spit of land jutting into the river, there was no way a boat could pass without its lord’s permission. Like many of the towers along the river, this one probably served as a customs checkpoint on what was the main economic thoroughfare of the time.

It was lunchtime, so we left the tower, saying goodbye to the friendly curator, and found a restaurant.

I would love to tell people where the tower is. The only problem with that is that I have no idea. All I do know is that it is somewhere on the Rhine between Bacharach and Bingen.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

The Taste of Travel: Cooked in the Parking Lot

With a little over an hour to kill in New Delhi, India, we couldn't go see the Red Fort, shop in one of the emporiums or see much of anything. Instead, Feroz Baktoo, who had secured transportation for Deon and me to Jaipur, invited us to eat lunch with him and his staff above his small office.

We jumped at the chance to eat with the five men. A 21-year-old worker we'd befriended and had introduced himself as Mr. Arshad led us up a narrow staircase in the office to the second story, where a blanket was spread over most of the floor. Following Arshad's lead, we took our shoes off and sat cross-legged (dare I say Indian Style?) in a small circle with the others, to whom we were introduced.

Feroz showed up a few seconds later with several stainless steel containers of food his wife had cooked for him earlier that day. He disappeared again and returned with a cardboard box full of chicken fresh-cooked over a fire in the parking lot. The other fare consisted of rice, potatoes and more chicken.

Arshad sitting down for lunch:

Small pie tins and paper plates were passed around, and we all served ourselves with our hands. Since these were Muslims, we weren't constrained from using our left hands to eat, which most Indians consider the "dirty" hand. This was good news for Deon, who was finally able to eat with his dominant hand.

The food was excellent and filling, and we were able to discuss all sorts of things with our hosts. Even though we were almost as far as we could get, geographically, from home, we found that talking to them was not much different than talking to anyone else in America. The fact that they were Muslim Indians and we were Christian Americans never even came up. Feroz told us about his business, and we offered tips on how he could attract more Americans. Deon and I answered his questions about Hawaii and convinced him that he needs to go there sometime.

There were some cultural differences, chief among which was the way our respective societies treat women. Deon and I tried to explain the concept of a double standard, but our arguments fell on deaf ears. Though India is scraping its way into modernity, there are still long strides to be taken in both human and women's rights.

When we got into the car to head to Jaipur, Arshad passed us his business card and said that if we ever traveled to Kashmir, his home, we were to come stay with him. This was indicative of the hospitality we found throughout the subcontinent, from metropolitan Mumbai to sleepy Old Goa.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Paris Throws a Party

The red light flashed in the elevator. I couldn’t read the French words, but I was pretty sure it said something about overload. Nevertheless, the French operator sat there, expressionless. What the hell, the elevator was made in the late 1800s, so what could possibly go wrong?

Fortunately, nothing went wrong, and I made it to the top along with the very full elevator car. I was shielded from the windows by the mob of people, so when I stepped out onto the viewing platform, the sight took my breath away.

Paris by night is beautiful – especially from the top of the Eiffel Tower. But this wasn’t any night in Paris. It was the summer solstice, and Paris throws a party. Countless small bands were performing throughout the city, at every café in what the French call "La fête de la Musique."

The main event, however, was across the Seine from the Eiffel Tower, at the Trocadero. The palatial building was alive with light, resembling the Aurora Borealis with the ethereal effect of moving, multi-colored lights shining through the smoke around the stage.

A solid block of people clogged the bridge, and all vehicle traffic was closed around the concert. Turning to another side, the sounds of the concert still filtered up the 900 or so feet to where I stood. I gazed down the Champs Elysées to the Arc de Triomphe, fully lit. On Montmarte sat the proud dome of the church of Sacre Coeur, in the heart of the artists’ district.

As the clock struck midnight, the Eiffel Tower exploded in flickering lights. Thousands of flashbulbs went off at random over the entire surface of the tower. This happened every half-hour for 10 minutes, but it seemed more of a spectacle as I stood atop one of the most famous structures in the world.

Finally, it was time to come down, and I rode the same elevator, with the same warning light and the same undaunted operator. Once on the ground, I wandered through the gardens and fields at the tower’s base. It was Paris as Paris is supposed to be experienced. I was carefree, and nobody seemed troubled or worried. Most people had alcohol, so I joined them and bought a French beer (I know, but I wasn't into wine at the time).

Wandering back to my hotel at two in the morning, I was amazed at how many Parisians were still out. The restaurants were all open and, for the most part, full. I wanted to stay out all night, but I had a train to catch in four hours. I’ll just have to go back next year.

Why Travel?

It used to be that I traveled for vacation. I went to places all over the United States and relaxed, sat on beaches, visited museums and basically did the touristy stuff. Over the past few years, travel has become something more for me. If I don't need another week off to recover from my vacation, I don't feel fulfilled.

That is not to say that a weekend trip to Lake Tahoe isn't worth doing, but if I only did that, I probably didn't learn anything. That trip is a vacation. Travel is something altogether different. Travel is showing up alone in Mumbai, India at midnight looking at a 45-minute taxi ride to the hotel and knowing the only word I'm sure I can pronounce in Hindi is "salad."

I hope this blog proves interesting and gives you a good sense of the joys I find in travel. At worst, it should give you an image of the different cultures I have visited and the experiences I have had, inside and outside the United States' borders. At best, it will inspire you to buy a plane ticket and soar to parts unknown, where you can discover for yourself the thing that inevitably strikes me every time I find myself a stranger in a new land:

People from just about everywhere are the same. Only the most subtle differences separate us, and it's those differences that can be the most exciting to explore.