The train to the Taj Mahal
Chaos surrounds train ticket purchases in Delhi, India.
DELHI, India — “I’d like to buy a train ticket to Agra,” I tell the clerk in the foreigners-only ticket office in the Delhi train station. He and four twins sitting beside him are wearing long, white coats that make them look like they will be able to solve any of my medical problems — as long as those problems, of course, are train-ticket related.
“What train number?” Doctor Train Ticket asks me, annoyed.
“I don’t know the train number,” I explain. This is my first Indian Railways experience, and I’m totally clueless.
“It is not my job to tell you the train numbers,” he says. “You must go to the Enquiry Desk.” But isn’t that where I am? I wonder. Between me and Doctor Train Ticket sits a computer — 1984’s flagship model — that could surely solve all of my problems.
“Can’t you just look up the number for the next train to Delhi on your computer and put me on it?” I ask. Doctor Train Ticket acts like I’ve just asked him to cure cancer on the spot — which I’d expect him to be able to do, considering his jacket. Well, at least he should be able to cure train cancer. Visibly angry, he spends a few minutes typing cryptic commands into his computer. This guy has never heard of Windows 7 or MacOS.
“The next two trains to Delhi leave at 1:30 and 2:30, but I can only book trains four hours before they are scheduled to leave,” he says. “I can book the 5:30 train for you.” It’s 11:30 in the morning, and Doctor Train Ticket seems absolutely thrilled that he’s just ruined my entire day with a few keypresses.
“No, I want to go on the next train. Can’t you put me on it?” I ask, exhausted.
“You can only book those at windows 61 to 66, downstairs,” he says. Of course, I think. I should have known. I start to realize that there might be a huge market demand for an Indian Railways Bureaucracy Idiosyncrasies for Dummies book. I consider writing it.
Downstairs, surrounded by hordes of frantic Indian travelers, I wait in line at window 64 for about 20 minutes. Indians repeatedly push me out of the way and cut in the “line” (which is more of a mass) in front me of me until I begin to defend my territory. When I finally reach the window, I fill out a ticket purchase form, which asks for my name, address, age, and an assortment of other information totally irrelevant to riding on a train. I don’t write anything after “Train Number” and hand it to the man at the window.
“Number?” The clerk on the other side of the glass looks at me with challenging eyes. This one’s not wearing a doctor’s coat.
“I don’t know the number! Please, just put me on the next train to Agra,” I say. I’m almost ready to hijack any train to Agra.
“STOP. RED. STOP! RED!” the clerk exclaims obtusely. Apparently, only Delhi train station employees with Train Ticket Doctorates and accompanying white coats can speak coherent English.
“Red?!” I ask, looking at him with a blank stare. He turns his computer screen toward me so I can read an English error message: “CHARTING IS FINISHED; TWO HOUR TICKET BOOKING WINDOW NOT OPEN.”
“RED!” he shouts. Apparently there’s a two hour window at the beginning of the four hour window before an Indian Railways train leaves during which no one can buy a train ticket. But, then, I realize that it’s already noon, and I already am within a two hour window of the 1:30 train’s departure.
“But it’s noon!” I try to tell the clerk, realizing quickly that I’m wasting my time. After all, “CHARTING IS FINISHED.” Or something.
“RED. Wait,” he says, and motions for me to step aside.
I stand next to the clerk’s window for over an hour, checking with him every 10 minutes to see if the mysterious purchasing window has opened.
“RED!” he repeats, over and over. Strangely, I find myself missing Doctor Train Ticket, who I never liked, but at least he knew English words other than “red.” Eventually, with only 10 minutes before the train’s departure, it becomes clear that “RED!” is never going to become “GREEN!” Then, I remember a tip from an India travel connoisseur I met while traveling.
“Can you just sell me a General Ticket on the train to Agra?” I ask. General Tickets don’t give buyers assigned seats, but they can be upgraded on the train by speaking with the conductor.
“50 rupees,” he says. I pay him, and he hands me a ticket. I sprint to one of the train’s 3AC cars — Indian trains usually have an assortment of classes: Second Class, First Class, Sleeper, 3AC, 2AC, and 1AC. Second Class and First Class have seats, Sleeper has beds without bedding or air conditioning, and the three air-conditioned classes have beds (with blankets) that progressively become less congested the more money a passenger pays.
I literally run into the conductor on the way to the train. He’s not wearing a doctor’s coat but his conductor’s uniform makes him look official enough.
“What can I do with this ticket?” I ask him. “Where’s the best place I can sit?”
He motions for me to follow him into a 3AC car and points to an upper bed.
“I can upgrade you for 70 rupees.”
“Done,” I say. He writes me a replacement ticket — Indian businesses seem to love handwritten paperwork more than anything in the world (hotels often provide me with two or three written receipts). I climb over people sitting on a lower bunk and settle into my berth. Finally, I’m on my way to the Taj Mahal.
Well, actually, the train departs 40 minutes late. Maybe Doctor Train Ticket wasn’t finished charting.
Entranced by the world’s most beautiful symbol of eternal love
Sunrise and sunset at the Taj Mahal.
AGRA, Uttar Pradesh, India — As soon as my train to Agra leaves from Delhi, I find myself confused again. I’m lying on my reserved upper berth, though most of the train car beds aren’t being used and almost all of the passengers are sitting on lower seats. I feel ridiculous, like I’m emperor of my train car, overseeing the rest of the passengers from above. Meanwhile, men pass by below me, offering a mysterious vegetarian curry out of industrial-sized buckets. I motion for one to serve me some on a paper plate, but when I try to pay for the food, he won’t accept any money. This is the first time I’ve gotten anything for free in India. I conclude that the food is going to kill me.
While I’m eating, the train makes a stop and passengers disembark, but the conductor makes no announcements. I can’t see through any of the train’s tiny lower windows from my upper bunk. I have no idea where I am.
“Is this Agra?” I ask a man sitting below me. I ask as nicely as possible, in an attempt to avoid appearing as a self-righteous train car emperor, shouting questions to my serfs. After all, I remember, Taj Mahal-builder and Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan was overthrown by his son soon after the Taj Mahal’s completion. The man below shakes his head and, in Hindi, I think he tells me that we still have a long ride to Agra. Another man walks by selling non-vegetarian food in foil tins. The first shots of an intestinal war have already been fired as a result of my free bucket food, so I decline. As the train chugs toward Agra, stopping at stations along the way, I find myself continuously recruiting new serfs below me to keep track of where we are. By the time I’m halfway through the journey, I have an eighteen year old kid, two Indian soldiers, and a young woman — none of whom can speak English — trying to assist me. It’s easy to accidentally aggregate helpers on the train; mercifully, Indians tend to be especially protective of clueless Westerners trying to make sense of Indian public transportation. At one point, the two Indian soldiers demand that a teenager move his feet resting on my berth, and the young woman makes food recommendations as buckets whisk by. They’re kind of like four Train-Fairy Godmothers. Soon, I fall asleep.
Suddenly, I awake to the sound of four Indians chanting “Agra! Agra!” in unison. I abruptly end my time as train car emperor, jump down from my bed, thank the four of them, and catch a taxi to my Agra guesthouse. Before he leaves, I arrange for my taxi driver to pick me up at 6 AM the next morning to take me to the Taj Mahal.
In the morning, I tell my driver to take me to the East Gate of the Taj Mahal. He promptly takes me to a roundabout near the West Gate instead — though his “East Gate!” announcement upon our arrival is quite convincing. India’s perpetually dishonest taxi drivers always have ulterior (and sometimes mysterious) motives; in this case, he was trying to save gas by taking me to the Gate closer to my hotel and, according to Lonely Planet, possibly collect a kickback from camel and rickshaw drivers sitting near the West Gate waiting to take tourists to the Taj’s ticket office. I don’t bother to argue with him since there’s not much time until sunrise, and I walk quickly to the entrance. Standing in line with about twenty other mostly Indian tourists, I’m surprised to see a lack of Westerners — I imagined that every white person in India would be flocking to the Taj Mahal.
Finally, the doors open, and I catch my first glimpse of the building considered to be the most beautiful in the world, one whose creator boasted that it made “the sun and the moon shed tears from their eyes.” I see the famous white, marble dome peeking through the arch of the Great Gate as tourists hold cameras high above their heads to get their first snapshot. I walk deliberately toward and around the Taj, soaking in the dawn, slowly taking photos from every possible angle. A handful of photographers gather in front of the adjacent Taj Mahal mosque with me to capture the sun as it rises behind it. Everyone is reverent, taking care not to interfere with others’ photographs and offering to help take posed pictures. The moment is perfect for the photographer gaggle: mist blankets the Yamuna River behind the structure, and the building looks like it has risen spontaneously from a clouded heaven, a concrete manifestation of nirvana.
The simple presence of the Taj, built as a symbol of eternal love by Emperor Jahan in memory of his third wife who died during childbirth, seems to encourage even rabid photographers to cooperate with each other.
I spend almost two hours touring and photographing the Taj, walking around its walls, admiring the calligraphy on the entrance arch, gazing at the minarets, and touching the intricate lattice screens in the mausoleum interior. I’m just about finished, taking a few final classic Taj Mahal reflection pool photographs from outside, when a beautiful, young blond woman performing playful, provocative poses for her friend’s camera catches my eye. Soon, a string of Indian men, and some Indian families too, start interrupting to ask her to pose with them in souvenir photos.
“The Indian tourists seem more interested in your white skin and blond hair than the white marble of the Taj Mahal,” I say to her. “I’m pretty sure a lot of these Indian guys are leaving with more pictures of you than the Taj.”
She chuckles and introduces herself to me as Sophie, from France, and, quickly, we’re trading funny stories of our travels through India. We like each other immediately. We find ourselves chatting in front of the Taj’s reflection pool for about a half hour as Indian men gawk at us. But when Sophie and I realize that we’re headed in opposite directions — she toward Amritsar in northern India and me toward Kerala in southern India — we share an awkward moment during which we realize that this is the one and only meeting of our entire lives.
“Well, it truly has been a pleasure, Hank,” she says. Her eyes hold on mine. For a long moment, she doesn’t look away. I can’t tell whether she’s staring at me or at the exquisite reflection of the Taj Mahal in the pool behind me.
She walks past me, in front of the rising sun. Then, she glances back at me one last time, smiles, and then shifts her gaze, once again, toward the world’s most beautiful symbol of eternal love.
To cushion the blow of saying goodbye to the Taj and Sophie, I ask a taxi driver to take me to India’s best hotel, the Oberoi Amar Villas, for breakfast. The driver takes me to two other hotels first and tries to convince me that they’re the Oberoi, in hopes of getting some hotel kickbacks. But his standins look like concrete boxes, whereas I know that the Oberoi is a dazzling palace, and his ruses fail. When I finally walk into the Oberoi, I feel like I’ve walked into ancient history and have become an emperor: the air is jasmine-scented, the architecture is lavish, and the staff, dressed like royal Mughal servants, provides impeccable service. After a huge meal of Eggs Benedict and French toast, I decide to visit the rest of the sights in Agra. But I find myself still thinking about Sophie and the Taj Mahal. At sunset, I ask a taxi driver to take me to Mehtab Bagh, a park that sits immediately across the Yamuna River, to see the Taj one last time.
From across the river, I watch the sunset as it casts a fantastic orange glow on the Taj’s white dome. I imagine Sophie, again, in front of the Taj, but, of course, she is nowhere to be found.
As dusk falls, birds fly overhead and I see an oarsman paddling a small canoe with a group of people down the river, in front of the Taj. I watch two teenage Indian couples, embracing on a brick wall, entranced by the view.
They can’t look away. Neither can I.
India, I hate you. India, I love you.
A tiger prevents me from killing an Indian taxi driver.
RANTHAMBORE NATIONAL PARK, Rajasthan, India — While most tourists end up in Agra, India on a mission to see the Taj Mahal, the city’s other historically important sights would make it an essential visit even if the Taj were to disappear. (File under “Genius Suggestions for David Copperfield.”) So, with an image of the world’s most famous symbol of eternal love (and the image of a beautiful, blond French girl) burned into my mind, I spend the rest of my time in Agra sightseeing with two other backpackers, Canadian Mark and Israeli Nicole, visiting Agra Fort (one of the best-preserved red-sandstone Mughal forts in India), Akbar’s Mausoleum (a marble tomb commemorating one of the greatest Mughal emperors), and the Itimad-Ud-Daulah (another marble tomb, known as the exquisite “Baby Taj,” with delicately carved marble lattice screens rivaling some of the Taj’s artistry). I learn a lot about the history of the Mughal Empire, but the most useful thing I learn is that I have been paying too much for taxis: Mark and Nicole’s tight travel budget dictate that they bargain with drivers more vigilantly than I ever knew possible. Though each taxi trip with the two always requires 25 minutes of negotiation time before setting off, I credit them with my never having to pay more than 60 Rs (US $1.30) for a taxi in Agra.
Using my amazing newfound haggling skills, I make a deal the next morning with a taxi driver to take me to Fatehpur Sikri (50 minutes from Agra) — an ancient city which served as the capital of the Mughal Empire during Akbar’s reign — and then on to a train station in nearby Bharatpur (30 minutes farther). I agree to pay 900 Rs (US $20) for the entire trip, but as soon as I get into the car, the driver demands that I pay the entire amount upfront because his borrowed car’s gas tank is empty. Reluctant to pay an Indian taxi driver anything upfront (doing so would take away any incentive for him to do anything right), I offer instead to start by paying him 300 Rs, but then, in exchange for doing the unheard favor of giving him cash upfront, pay him only 700 Rs total for the trip. To my surprise, he agrees immediately, and I feel pleased with my tough bargaining skills.
He begins driving me to the fort, and, per usual, I refuse his offer to take me for lunch to his “friend’s restaurant” (a sneaky way Indian drivers try to collect commission). But when we’re close to Fatehpur Sikri’s entrance, he drives me to an obviously-fake “Tourist Information” office offering expensive, unofficial tours of the complex. Not fooled, I demand immediately that he bring me to the real entrance to the ancient city, and after a lot of arguing about whether we’re already there (I insist that we’re not), he drives me to the real entrance. He still manages to extort an extra, 90 Rs from me during the trip for previously not-agreed-upon (but legitimate) tolls and parking fees, but I calm myself by imagining that the driver will be reincarnated as a Western tourist trapped eternally in the nightmarish Delhi train station in his next life.
When I finally manage to enter Fatehpur Sikri, it’s while carrying my very heavy backpack, because I’m afraid I can’t trust my driver to wait with it, and with an unofficial, unwanted tour guide affixed to my side. Despite my protests, the unofficial guide takes me on a tour of the Jama Masjid, a beautiful mosque, and Saint Shaikh Salim Chishti’s white marble tomb, outside of the palace buildings. In the tomb, I join a large group of Indians making offerings of prayers, fabric, and flowers. Worshippers believe that those who offer prayers and tie thread to the lattice of the tomb’s marble windows have their wishes fulfilled. I figure it’s worth a shot, so I leave some fabric and flowers and tie three pieces of thread to the lattice, one for each of my wishes. My guide told me that revealing my wishes will cause them not to come true, so I can’t share them here. (Though, since my guide wasn’t an official tour guide, I don’t know if this wishing rule is official, but it’s best not to test these things.)
My guide concludes our Jama Masjid tour with a hard sales pitch for his “friend’s” carved marble elephants and an admission that unofficial guides don’t have permission to enter the actual palace complex. I don’t pay him much for his unofficial half-tour. An official tour guide, who scolds me for gallivanting with a scandalous, unofficial guide, then leads me into the palace complex to see the three palaces Akbar built for each of his favorite wives: one a Hindu, one a Muslim, and one a Christian. That must have made the holiday season with the in-laws really complicated, I think.
When I return to my taxi, my driver drives for about 50 feet before announcing that he’s only going to bring me as far as a bus stop for a bus that will take me to the Bharatpur train station. Compared to many people, I am exceptionally even-keeled, but with this violation of our agreement, I find that my Indian-taxi-driver-patience well is empty. I tell him sternly that if he doesn’t take me to the train station, I’ll get out of the taxi and won’t pay him any more money for the trip. This is a considerable threat, because he used almost all of the money I paid him upfront to fill his borrowed taxi with gas. Initially, he backs off and tells me that he’ll drive me to the train station, but seconds later, he begins decelerating. He tells me that there’s something wrong with the car, and there’s no way we’ll be able to make it all the way to the station.
“I guess we’ll need a tow truck!” I say sarcastically, as I pretend to call AAA on my cell phone. The taxi driver looks at me, and though his English is limited, he senses that he’s tried to cheat me one too many times. Very angry, I again threaten to get out of the car and pay him nothing more. This time, though, he continues arguing. I’m furious. I jump out of the taxi, yell an obscenity at him, and begin walking toward, well, I have no idea where.
I’m living a scene from a sitcom as he drives alongside me, at a speed of two miles per hour, while I walk in a direction where I hope I’ll find a bus to Bharatpur or maybe another taxi. All the while, the driver is yelling at me to get back into the vehicle. He even recruits some other taxi drivers along the way who speak better English to negotiate with me on his behalf. This goes on for about two kilometers (a little over a mile) until he realizes that he’s made me so angry that I’d sooner crawl to Bharatpur than get back into his taxi. Finally, he drives off, and I find myself on a dirt road in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by Indians who can’t direct me to the bus to Bharatpur because I can’t speak Hindi and they can’t speak English. I am angry at the taxi driver, partly because he left me here, but mostly because he’s managed to make me hate India.
I spot a guy with a big Jeep packed with ten people, and I beg him to make room for me and take me to Bharatpur train station. We can’t really understand each other, but eventually we come to some sort of agreement that ends up costing me 200 Rs and I hope will end with me in Bharatpur. When we arrive the train station, I feel vindicated: total, I’ve paid 200 Rs less than if the taxi driver had simply honored our agreement, and I suspect that he won’t even have enough gas to get back to Agra.
Exhausted from my massive taxi driver fight, I buy a couple fried rotis to eat and realize that in two hours, I’m going to have to deal with yet another Indian taxi driver when I arrive at Rathambore National Park, one of the best places to see wild tigers in India. I decide that I’ve reached my Indian taxi driver limit, and it’s splurge time. (I usually stay in budget accommodations six days per week and then, on the seventh night, if I’ve saved enough money, stay in a luxury hotel as a treat). On the train platform, I e-mail Khem Villas, a ten-acre, self-proclaimed “luxury jungle camp” adjacent to Ranthambore, and ask them to arrange a tiger safari for me and pick me up at the train station when I arrive. A few hours later, after an excellent vegetarian dinner, I’m lying in a fantastic luxury tent in the most comfortable bed I’ve encountered in India, surrounded by tiger-filled wilderness.
At sunrise the next morning, I jump into a Gypsy (a four-wheel-drive Jeep used for safaris) with four other safari-goers and a guide named Mukesh. The Ranthambore Holy Grail, of course, is seeing a tiger in the wild, but I’m not expecting much. I’ve heard that some of the guests at my hotel have been in the Park for four days and haven’t seen anything more than a Sambar deer. (No offense to Sambar deer, which are actually pretty cool.) But, while we’re stopped on one of the Park’s dirt roads, Mukesh spots some moving underbrush and a flash of orange about 100 feet from the Gypsy.
Then, to all of the passengers’ amazement, an enormous female tiger known locally as T17 saunters out from the bush, toward us. She looks around curiously, wanders across the road about 25 feet in front of our Jeep, and strolls back into the jungle. We’re awestruck.
India, I’m so confused. I still hate you. But, I’m also sure that I love you.
Either way, those taxi drivers have got to go.
In India, anything is possible
The Kerala Backwaters turn out to be a relaxing, alternate-universe India.
ALLEPPEY, Kerala, India — When I wake up in the morning after my tiger sighting, I feel nauseated and weak. I curse myself for eating Indian food from buckets on the train, but I don’t have much time because I only have one day remaining before I need to catch a flight to Southern India. I drag myself out of bed, navigate my way through the typical chaos of the Sawai Madhopur train station, and jump onto a train to Jaipur. India doesn’t slow down even when I’m sick, I whine to myself. Every time the train jolts, I feel like I’m going to throw up.
When I arrive at my guesthouse in Jaipur, the manager doesn’t have my room ready, so I decide to take a nap on the hotel’s library’s couch, hoping that the rest will help my stomach. In the library, though, I start chatting with two 23-year-old British girls named Gwen and Kate, who have been traveling around the world for almost a year. Kate tells me that the two have sometimes stopped to take odd jobs to finance their trip, and Gwen reveals that she once worked on an Australian chicken farm, hunting kangaroos to stop them from poaching chickens. I’m mesmerized. The two are just about to take a taxi driver-guided tour of Jaipur, and they ask me to join them. My stomach feels uneasy, mostly at the thought of dealing with yet another dishonest Indian taxi driver and also partly because I’m still sick, but I’m reluctant to turn down an invitation to see the city with a British kangaroo hunter.
The taxi driver takes us first to Jaipur’s City Palace — a remarkable complex built by Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh, ruler of the kingdom of Amber (which later became Jaipur) — and the Jantar Mantar — a unique observatory-park filled with ancient astronomical instruments. I’m staggering along so slowly that I apologize to Gwen and Kate and explain that I’m not feeling well, but I’m still afraid that they may be regretting having brought me along. After our City Palace tour (which includes a fascinating exhibition of hundreds of ancient knives and other weapons) and a photo-op with a real snake charmer, our taxi driver/tour guide tells us that he’s going to take us on a textiles factory tour. Immediately, my Indian taxi driver bullshit detector goes off, and I realize that we’re going to be taken on a shopping tour designed by the driver to collect store kickbacks and commissions. I’m about to put a quick stop to the trip when Gwen and Kate tell me that they, too, know what’s about to happen but they want to go ahead with it anyway.
“It’ll be fun,” Kate says. “We don’t have to buy anything.”
The next thing I know, the three of us are sitting on a large sofa being served unlimited, free chai in a huge showroom stacked to the ceiling with bed and pillow covers. Salesmen parade tens of duvet covers in front of us while we discuss the merits of each.
“I feel like a Mughal emperor picking out his linens,” I joke. When one of us shakes our head, a salesman whisks the offending duvet cover away and replaces it with a new, usually more expensive one. I realize that the feeling of total control that I feel from the shopping is the opposite of my normal, everyday India feeling. The process is surprisingly therapeutic and relaxing.
Suddenly, a salesman shows us a black duvet cover adorned with attractive golden elephants. I realize that, surprisingly, my stomach illness has completely disappeared. I feel great.
“I want that one!” I exclaim, pointing at the golden elephant design. Though I almost never buy anything while I’m traveling because I hate carrying things (have you seen the title of my travelogue?), I decide that this bed cover, which seems magically to have cured my stomach infection, would be a perfect souvenir from India.
I leave the store with a lighter wallet, but I realize that sometimes, the best way to deal with India is to sit back, relax, and let two British girls and an Indian taxi driver take you for a ride. At the very least, it seems to help cure nausea.
When I wake up the next morning, I feel groggy and confused. I look at my watch, which reads: “7:10 AM.” My flight from Jaipur to Kochi in the Southern Indian state of Kerala departs at 8:10 AM, and the taxi ride to the airport takes 30 minutes. By the time I’ve finished frantically packing my backpack and checking out of my hotel, it’s 7:20 AM. The last thing I have time to do is argue with a taxi driver right now, I think.
“My flight leaves at 8:10,” I tell a rickshaw driver waiting in front of the hotel. “Can we make it?”
“In India, anything is possible,” he says, winking at me. I roll my eyes. But, to my surprise, he offers me a fair price upfront, and I jump in the rickshaw. When we arrive, at 7:50 AM with 20 minutes to spare before my flight’s departure, the airport is so disorganized that no one seems to notice that I’ve arrived late, and I’m quickly ushered onto the plane. Apparently there are certain advantages to systemic chaos. I realize that, once again, an Indian taxi driver has managed to save my day.
When I reach the quaint fishing village of Fort Cochin, I feel like I’ve arrived in an alternate-universe India, where life moves more slowly, streets aren’t congested, and taxi drivers are strangely helpful. I decide to spend a few days there, taking some time to unwind while enjoying the town’s excellent restaurants.
One day, after walking through a Bollywood film shoot on the street, I meet a Dutch girl named Fleur while drinking a banana milkshake in a teahouse. She tells me that she has spent the last month volunteering at an orphanage for disabled children in eastern India, and now, she’s waiting for her mom to meet her for Christmas in Southern India. The two of us decide to see a performance of Kathakali, a traditional Keralan dramatic performance in which actors tell stories through dance. Traditionally, Kathakali performances last all night, but our condensed 90-minute performance is long enough for me: I’m totally bewildered by the story, half because Kathakali dance moves are inscrutable to Westerners and half because the explanatory brochure that the playhouse gave me and Fleur is written in Dutch. Still, I enjoy the distinctive performance, which Fleur later explains to me was a farce about a fight between the Hindu God Shiva and an imposter. Later, I also take some time to see a demonstration of Kalarippayt, the traditional Keralan martial art. I’m fascinated as the performers demonstrate unique hand-to-hand combat, knife fighting, and the use of an Urumi, a sharp, flexible sword that allows victims to take on five attackers at once.
But, I flew to Kerala mostly to see the famed Keralan Backwaters, a series of connected rivers, lakes, and canals, whose shores are inhabited by thousands of native Keralans. So, though I find it difficult to tear myself away from Fort Cochin, I eventually catch a bus to Alleppey, a town sometimes called the Venice of the East.
When I arrive there, I hire two local kids to take me on a tour of the Backwaters in a canoe. Though I’ll avoid describing the Backwaters as “enchanting” in fear of repeating the description used by every other travel writer and backpacker in Kerala, the experience is one-of-a-kind. My guides paddle me past beautiful, lavish houseboats, which many visitors to Alleppey hire for a couple days to experience the canals and enjoy traditional Keralan food cooked by a professional chef. My boat captains even take me to visit their homes sitting on the edge of a hidden canal. As we paddle under palm canopies, past Keralan families making dinner and doing laundry, I realize that for the first time in India, I feel completely relaxed. And, even more strangely, two taxi drivers helped make it happen.
Maybe it’s true. In India, anything is possible.
The guru of hugs
Seeking a life-changing hug and the secret to life from India’s most famous female spiritual leader.
AMRITAPURI, Kerala, India — South of Alleppey, India, in a tiny town in the Kerala Backwaters called Amritapuri, sits a pink ashram run by Mata Amritanandamayi Devi, one of India’s few female gurus. Known as “Amma” (which means “mother”), she doesn’t prescribe any specific religious doctrine — unless, of course, you consider hugging to be a religion. Amma strives to better the world with unending, unconditional love, dispensed to her followers through marathon, 22-hour hugging sessions. “My religion is love. An unbroken stream of love flows from Amma to all beings in the universe,” she tells followers. “This is Amma’s inborn nature… To lovingly caress people, to console and wipe their tears until the end of this mortal frame — this is Amma’s wish.”
22-hour hugging sessions? I wonder if she rides around on unicorns and fights wars with Care Bears, I think to myself one night in an Indian guesthouse while researching her in the New York Times. But when I read that Amma’s devotees swear by the life-changing and healing power of her hugs, I grow curious: if I set my cynicism aside, might a blast of unconditional love in the form of a hug from Amma fix some of my life’s problems?
I decide that I don’t want to miss my chance to find out. The next morning, I board Alleppey’s southbound tourist ferry and, at my request, the captain agrees to make a special stop at the Amritapuri dock. On the boat, I meet a group of Australian teenagers — Nick, Kate, Cassie, and Mindy — who have made a special trip to Southern India to visit Amma.
“Aren’t you excited?! She’s going to be at the ashram when we get there!” Mindy bubbles. She explains to me that she has called the ashram in advance to be sure that Amma, who spends much of the year traveling to her network of other ashrams around the world and raising money, will be present when we arrive.
“It never occurred to me that she wouldn’t be there,” I answer. Mindy and the other Australians eye me suspiciously. They already know that I’m a pretender.
When we arrive at the ashram, the five of us walk over a pink bridge and through a large gate, into a sea of people wearing white robes. Mindy tells me that Amma’s followers wear the robes to show their devotion to Amma, who chose at an early age to wear only plain white clothes as a statement of humility in juxtaposition to the brightly colored saris traditionally worn by Indian women. We make our way into the ashram’s temple, where I see devotees praying next to a huge, Jesus-like photograph of Amma, in front of a statue of Kali, the same idol for which I saw tens of chickens and goats sacrificed in Nepal a week earlier. I don’t see any goats or chickens here.
Inside the temple, near a bulletin board with another photo of Amma and signs advertising meditation courses and begging ashram residents to do “Seva” (selfless chores), we find the foreigners’ check-in desk, where a man in a white robe gives me a registration form and takes my passport. In addition to my first and last name, the form also asks for my “Spiritual Name.” I reluctantly leave the space blank, worrying that by doing so, I am acknowledging an appalling void in my soul. I read a list of “Rules for Visitors,” which explains that in return for dressing modestly, not smoking, and 150 Rs (US $3.30) per day, I will receive dormitory accommodations, three Indian meals, and safe drinking water. When I return the registration form, the man in the robe tells me that I’ll only get my passport back when I check out of the ashram. They’re never going to let me leave, I worry.
The ashram grounds are so large that I become hopelessly lost on the way to my room, but I run into a 24-year-old Canadian named Mike with a decidedly vacant look in his eyes who offers to help me. On the way, he tells me that he has been living in the ashram for a year, which seems, to me, like a very long time to live in an ashram.
“I was just traveling around India, and when I came to visit, I never wanted to leave,” he tells me. Oh my God, I really am going to be brainwashed and live here for the rest of my life, I think.
“Amma is just amazing,” he goes on, starry-eyed. “I’ve never met anyone like her.”
I settle into my bunk bed in a room with six other guys, including Australian Nick and an Israeli named Ori who has spent two months in the ashram. It’s almost 100F degrees, and I half-jokingly tell Ori that I’m dying for a milkshake. To my surprise, he tells me that the ashram has a “Juice Stall” which serves them. We head over. In addition to yet another photo of Amma — who I’m starting to realize may be one of the world’s most shameless self-promoters — posters on the “Juice Stall” door instruct customers to follow a set of bewildering rules to get juice: “Please follow ‘Q’ System,” “Collect your token and get juice,” “Juice Stall Timings: 10:30 AM to 12:30 PM/4:00 PM to 6:00 PM/8:00 PM to 9:30 PM/Tuesday 3:00 AM to 6:00 PM,” and, “This is a strict order! Students are hereby requested to bring their own cup or glass to buy milk.” Despite stern looks from the Juice Stall workers, I manage to get a cup, stand in line, collect a token, and order two milkshakes (it’s really hot), but the process feels like trying to get a milkshake in Communist Russia.
As we enjoy our milkshakes, Ori tells me that he does “Seva” chores every day, ranging from manning the Juice Stall to sorting recyclables to “compost duty,” which, he tells me in his Israeli accent, is “really just swimming in shit.”
“But,” he explains, “the people willing to do compost duty are unique. You meet some really cool people swimming in shit. And it’s all for Amma.”
Afterward, I return to the temple for a scheduled tour of the ashram with other new arrivals and meet a tour guide, a California transplant who tells us that her name is Naranuna (almost certainly her “spiritual name”). She apologizes for not removing her sunglasses (“My recent ayurvedic eye treatment has been very painful,” she explains) and seats us in front of a television to watch a clumsily-produced propaganda video all about the greatness of Amma. The video spends 30 minutes Jesusifying Amma, claiming that Amma has hugged 26 million people in her lifetime and that her charity organization, Embracing the World, has contributed an impressive US $46 million to 2004 Asian Tsunami victims and US $1 million to victims of Hurricane Katrina. Most interestingly, the video hints strongly at the transformative power of Amma’s hugs, as hug recipients are seen crying, fainting, and generally freaking out. By the time the video is over, even Naranuna is teary-eyed and can barely get a coherent sentence out: “Isn’t Amma absolutely amazing!?” she gushes.
I start to wonder whether my family is going to need to hire Harvey Keitel to deprogram me (and Naranuna). (See: Holy Smoke.)
When Naranuna asks if the group has any questions, I ask her as politely as possible whether people perform Hindu animal sacrifices to Kali at the ashram.
“Amma doesn’t teach any specific religion, and she thinks of Kali’s bloodlust as a metaphor for the strength necessary inside everyone to fight evil, not as a real craving that needs to be fed with sacrifices,” she responds. I’m impressed by her sensible answer. I also find it refreshing that Amma isn’t trying to convince people of the validity of a specific God or martyr. I start to realize that, maybe, evangelizing unconditional love and hugging is somehow less ridiculous than proselytizing more traditional religious beliefs.
Afterward, Naranuna takes us on a tour of the ashram grounds and shows us Amma’s childhood home and an adjacent cowshed. She tells us that Amma’s family asked her as a teenager to dispense her hugs from the cowshed so that their home wouldn’t be constantly filled with hug-seeking visitors. At the end of the tour, Naranuna tells us that we’ll need to get a numbered token the following morning to get “Darshan.” In Amma’s case, “receiving Darshan,” the Sanskrit word for seeing a guru, is synonymous with getting a hug from her. Because so many people want an Amma hug, the process is managed with numbered tokens.
“Many people want to say something to Amma or ask a question when they get Darshan, so think about what you might want to say,” Naranuna explains. A question? What kind of question should I ask Amma?! I wonder to myself.
After the tour, I spend an hour singing mantras (known as Bhajans) with Amma and her devotees (“It’s a very special treat,” Naranuna told us) and frantically running through question ideas for Amma in my head: “Which came first: the chicken or the egg?” “Why is buying a milkshake in the ashram so complicated?” “What will next week’s winning lottery numbers be?” “Will I ever see Sophie, the blond, French girl from the Taj Mahal ever again?”
Afterward, while I’m standing in line for a curried rice and potatoes dinner ration, I meet Ana, a 22-year-old girl from Sweden who has been living at the ashram for six months, doing volunteer work for Amma’s Habitat-for-Humanity-like home-building charity. Ana is charming and seems surprisingly well-adjusted. I eat dinner with her and two of her friends, both women in their sixties. One of them, another Swedish woman named Lalita (her spiritual name), tells me that she has been living in the ashram for 11 years, which seems, to me, like a very, very, very long time to live in an ashram.
“After I got divorced, I visited the Ashram,” Lalita tells me. “I got involved with Amma’s charity work and I never left. Amma is wonderful. Once you get your first hug from Amma, you’ll stay too.” She seems sure. Amma must supplement these hugs with a brainwashing drug, I think. Or, maybe, limitless, unconditional love is powerful enough.
At 4:50 AM the next morning, I wake up in a pool of my own sweat, miserable from the humidity and the stench of five other guys sleeping on bunk beds in my room. There’s no hug in the world that could convince me to stay in a place this hot without air conditioning, I think. I walk to Amma’s cowshed to attend a morning puja, a religious ceremony in which water, flowers, incense, and food are offered to a Hindu god. The ceremony is interactive, so I awkwardly try to follow along as best I can: I wash my hands, eat a piece of unidentified fruit, and throw the flowers I’m given into the fire. I’m so hot that it’s hard for me to sense whether I’ve managed actually to summon a deity, but, during the ceremony, I’m hypnotized by the sound of women in the adjacent temple chanting mantras from the Bhagavad Gita, the sacred Hindu scripture. California feels very far away.
After the ceremony, I join a group of ashram residents on a nearby beach for the ashram’s daily three-hour meditation session, and then eat breakfast and retrieve my numbered Darshan Token. I’m assigned one of the first hugs of the day.
I meet up with the Australians from the boat, and they also have early Darshan numbers. After passing through metal detectors, we’re all ushered into seats on a stage where Amma is hugging devotees. I watch as Amma hugs person after person, for about 20 seconds at a time. Upon seeing Amma in person, one Indian woman bursts into tears. Another faints into the arms of her family. Some spend extra time with Amma after their hug, asking questions and discussing their life problems, mostly in Malayalam, the native language of Kerala. An emotional American woman waiting next to me says to her boyfriend, “There is so much energy on this stage I can barely hold myself together.” She fans herself with her hand, as though she might explode from hug-overload at any moment. I watch Australian Mindy get her hug, and her face looks flush. As she leaves, she whispers to me, “It was amazing.”
When it’s almost my turn, one of Amma’s white-robed devotees uses a towel to clean my face — apparently Amma doesn’t like face dirt or sweat — and then pushes me onto my knees. I kneel, inches from Amma, waiting for an Indian man to finish hugging her. When he finishes, two white-robed assistants immediately push me into Amma’s chest, carefully positioning my arms and hands on Amma’s body — maybe in an attempt to achieve the most powerful hug possible? As I’m hugging Amma, the Indian man who hugged her previously continues talking to her in Malayalam, in a very urgent tone, as though he’s trying desperately to confirm the launch codes for a nuclear submarine. My hug continues as they talk. After my hug has lasted about two minutes, I start to pull away, but Amma’s hug assistants forcefully hold me in place. I wonder if I will be stuck, hugging Amma, for the rest of my life. But, after a full four minutes, when the Indian man seems finally to have successfully confirmed his launch codes, my hug with Amma ends. I’m not that impressed. Aside from the fact that the hug seemed endless, it was a typical hug.
As I pull away, Amma’s and my eyes meet. I realize that this is my chance to ask her a question.
“Amma, how can I live a happy life?” I ask.
Amma, smiles, leans forward, and whispers into my right ear.
I can’t tell you what she said.
No, seriously. I can’t tell you because she whispered in Malayalam. I have no idea what she said.
But, as I walk off the stage, I notice that my mood has lifted.
I start to wonder if, maybe, by themselves, Amma’s hugs aren’t supposed to be life changing. Maybe they’re only symbols representing the secret to living a happy life: receiving and giving never-ending, unconditional love.
I wonder if that’s what Amma whispered in my ear.
How to See the Taj Mahal at Sunrise and Sunset
- OVERVIEW: The Taj Mahal — and many other beautiful sites, including Agra Fort, Akbar’s Mausoleum and Itimad-Ud-Daulah (the Baby Taj) — are located in Agra, Uttar Pradesh, which is a two- to three-hour train ride from Delhi. The Taj has a steep entry fee (750 Rs/US $17), but, hey, it’s the most beautiful building in the world. Your Taj ticket can be used to get discounts on tickets for most other attractions around Agra.
- LOGISTICS: Fly to Delhi and ask a taxi driver to take you to the New Delhi train station to take a train to Agra (370 Rs/US $8 or 700 Rs/US $15 for a bed in 1AC), which is the easiest and fastest way to get there. You can also fly directly to Agra from Delhi for about 4,500 Rs (US $100) or take a bus (120 Rs, 4.5 hours). The notoriously dishonest taxi drivers in Delhi (and throughout India) will try to overcharge you, tell you that your hotel has burned down so they can take you to one that will pay commission, drop you at a commission-paying store instead of your destination, or bring you to a fake (but genuine-looking) tourist office where you will be told that the only way to get to your destination is by hiring an expensive car and driver. Be aware and don’t fall for any of it. At airports and train stations, try to use only pre-paid taxi stands, which can help minimize (but not eliminate) these shenanigans. If all else fails, threaten not to pay a driver or report him to the police — doing either usually fixes most problems.
- TRAVELING BY TRAIN IN INDIA: Despite my chaotic ticket-buying experience at the Delhi train station, traveling by train in India can be one of the fastest and most inexpensive ways to travel if you can figure out the rules. If you have time to book your train at least four hours before it leaves and you want to book any AC class, use the convenient Cleartrip to look up itineraries, then book and print your ticket online. Cleartrip charges a service fee of about 25 Rs (55 US cents) per ticket, so, for cheap tickets, you may prefer to book at a station. To do this, go directly to the station’s Current Booking window within a two hour window before your train departs, fill out a request form, and you’ll have your ticket quickly if assigned seats are still available. To help with train numbers, use Cleartrip online, or buy the handy Trains at a Glance, which contains the entire Indian Railways schedule, at any train station bookstore. Book a General Ticket and ask a conductor for an upgrade on the train if no seats are available. Of course, at the hectic Delhi train station, tourists can use the foreigners-only booking office, labeled “International Tourist Bureau,” on the first floor of the station’s main building. (If you can’t find it, ask a railway official; there is at least one unofficial and misleading tourist office, and finding the official one is difficult if you’re on the wrong side of the station. I guarantee that it’s not closed and it hasn’t burned down.)
- SEEING THE TAJ MAHAL AT SUNRISE: Once you’ve landed in Agra — whether by train, bus, plane, or car — arrange for the driver who takes you to your hotel (it’s best to arrange in advance for your hotel to pick you up to avoid scams) to pick you up before sunrise the next morning to take you to the Taj. Haggle. Demand to be taken to the Taj’s East Gate — otherwise, taxi drivers will take you to a roundabout far from the West Gate, which can be a long walk (or expensive camel/carriage ride) and crowded. The East Gate also has the advantage of being near Oberoi Amar Villas, possibly the best hotel in India, to which you’ll want your driver to deliver you for breakfast after your Taj visit. Spend a couple hours soaking in Emperor Shah Jahan’s monument to eternal love; by 9 AM, the complex will be swimming with tourists.
- SEEING THE TAJ MAHAL AT SUNSET FROM MEHTAB BAGH PARK: In the evening, you may want to see the Taj one last time before leaving Agra. You can visit it again with the same entry ticket, or you can visit Mehtab Bagh (100 Rs/US $2), a park across the Yamuna River that has an exceptional view of the Taj. If you’re feeling extra adventurous, it is easy to sneak into the side of this park for free. You’ll see lots of Indian couples enjoying the sunset view of the Taj before darkness falls.
How to See Wild Tigers in India’s Ranthambore National Park
- OVERVIEW: Ranthambore National Park is one of the best places to see wild tigers in India. The Park is a four hour train ride from Delhi on the Ag Kranti Rajasthan (an express train) but a five hour ride on most other trains from Delhi. The Park is also a five hour train ride from Agra, and buses are available from Jaipur and Kota. Finally, if you’re already at Fatehpur Sikri, you can easily catch a two-hour train from nearby Bharatpur.
- LOGISTICS: Fly to Delhi and ask a taxi driver to take you to the Hazrat Nizamuddin train station to take a train to Sawai Madhopur, the town adjacent to the Park. (Or, take a train from Agra or Bharatpur). When you arrive at the station in Sawai Madhopur, a taxi or rickshaw driver will take you to any of the many nearby hotels. Or, if you’re in the mood to be pampered, the Khem Villas, one of Ranthambore’s most luxurious resorts, will pick you up from the train station if you arrange a room in advance.
- SAFARIS: Tiger safaris can be booked online at the official National Park website at rajasthanwildlife.in at least one day prior. If no seats are available, you can stand in line at the National Park starting at 5 AM on the day you want to go out on safari to try to nab an extra seat. (Your hotel may also be willing to hire an agent to do so for you; ask for more details). Gypsies (Jeeps) are more intimate and nimble (530 Rs), but canters (large, open-topped trucks seating twenty people) are more social and slightly less expensive (475 Rs).
How to Visit the Kerala Backwaters
- OVERVIEW: The Kerala Backwaters are a series of connected rivers, lakes, and canals adjacent to the Arabian Sea in the state of Kerala in Southern India. Many travelers consider the Backwaters one of India’s most beautiful destinations. Incidentally, the people of Kerala elected a communist-led government in 1957, which today is still one of the few democratically-elected communist governments in the world.
- LOGISTICS: Fly to Kerala’s Cochin International Airport (or, you can take a 22-hour train ride from Mumbai). Then, from the Eranakulam Junction train station, you can take a train (61 Rs/US $1.35) to Alleppey, the jumping-off point to the Backwaters. Or, you can follow my itinerary by taking a taxi from the airport to Fort Cochin (700 Rs/US $15) and then ask a taxi driver to take you to the bus stop for the bus to Alleppey (20 Rs).
- CANOE TRIPS: Do yourself a favor and hire some local paddlers to take you on a half-day (400 Rs/US $9) or full-day canoe trip through the Backwaters. Canoes can take travelers to places most other boats can’t go, and you’ll get the most intimate tour of the Backwaters. Tourists who take canoe tours are often invited to excellent meals in the houses of their canoe captains and shown how local handicrafts are made. Homestays and hotels can help arrange these trips, but you’ll also be offered trips by almost every local you meet in Kerala when you walk down the street.
- HOUSEBOATS: Many visitors to Alleppey hire a houseboat to experience the canals and enjoy traditional Keralan food cooked by a professional chef. Most backpackers I talked to recommended these expensive (usually starting at about 6,000 Rs/US $130) overnight trips wholeheartedly, especially the food, but keep in mind that the houseboats are too large to take people into the most charming canal networks.
How to Visit Amma’s Amritapuri Ashram
- OVERVIEW: Mata Amritanandamayi Devi (“Amma”) is one of India’s few female gurus, and her ashram is located in Amritapuri in Southern India’s Kerala. Amma spends much of her time traveling around the world, so if you want to see her, be sure to call the ashram in advance to get her schedule. Of course, you can always visit the ashram whether she is there or not. If you can’t make it to India, Amma has other ashrams in locations around the world, including the US, Japan, Africa, and Australia.
- LOGISTICS: Fly to Kerala’s Cochin International Airport (or, you can take a 22-hour train ride from Mumbai). Then, from the Eranakulam Junction train station, you can take a train (61 Rs/US $1.35) to Alleppey, the jumping-off point to the Backwaters. The Keralan government runs a tourist boat (300 Rs/US $7), which leaves at 10:30 AM from the Alleppey boat jetty and sails sightseers from Alleppey to Kollam. While the best way to see the Kerala Backwaters is on a canoe tour or houseboat, this ferry is still useful because, upon special request, the captain will drop passengers off at the Amritapuri dock (200 Rs/US $4). The full ferry tour to Kollam is a too-long eight hours on a principal waterway, but the five-hour trip to Amritapuri is bearable, and the boat stops for a 30-minute lunch (food cost not included). If you prefer, you can skip the ferry and take a train directly from Eranakulam Junction to Karunagapally (2.5 hours, 73 Rs), which is the closest station to Amritapuri.
- VISITING THE ASHRAM: Visitors to Amritapuri may stay overnight at the ashram for 150 Rs (US $3.30), which includes a shared dorm room and three Indian meals. Western-style food is available for extra money. A typical day at the ashram starts at 5 AM with an hour-long puja ceremony or mantra chanting. Devotees spend the following three hours meditating; yoga, meditation, and other classes are often available during this time. Breakfast is served at 9 AM, where you can also get a Darshan token to get your hug from Amma. After breakfast, people perform their Seva (selfless chores). In the evening, singing Bhajans starts at 6 PM and is followed by dinner at 7 PM. Most devotees go to sleep soon after dinner — after all, the next day starts again at 5 AM. Keep in mind that Amritapuri is a very large and busy ashram, especially when Amma is there. Those looking for a small, peaceful, tightly-knit ashram may be disappointed.