Category Archives: Travel

A week early, and a few rupees short

A few astute observers noted: hey, wasn't I supposed to return next week? Indeed. The plan was changed a little, and I'm already home. Let me tell you a story.

7 March. Bus Stand, Jalgaon, Maharashtra--a junction town in west-central India. I was no longer rushing. It was too late--the bird had flown. I had just finished a four-hour bus ride from Aurangabad. I had a rail ticket in my wallet for the 12627 Karnataka Express, a train that was leaving to Delhi from Burhanpur in two-and-a-half hours. Four days prior I had come from Burhanpur to Jalgaon. It took three-and-a-half hours to make the trip.

I had a plan. I grabbed an auto from the bus stand to the railway station, crossed up and over the tracks to the third platform, and went to the Deputy Station Manager's office. He ignored me. I went to the Station Manager's office. He wasn't there. I went back to the Dy. Station Manager's office. He gave me an annoyed look that had clearly been honed over time.

I told him my story, that I had a ticket from Burhanpur to Delhi.

He said, "It is too far. What can you do?" and bent down to his papers again.

Yes, yes, I knew that. I informed him that the the same train stopped at Jalgaon before proceeding to Burhanpur. Could I board the train there in Jalgaon?

Ah. A chink in the official's armor: the enquirer knew something. With near-comic exasperation, the manager made a phone call, said a few things in Marathi, hung up. I had a 2AC (two-tiered, air-conditioned) berth. He said there were no available seats in that class.

Of course. But, sir, couldn't I buy an unreserved ticket, ride the 180 km from Jalgaon to Burhanpur in general seating, and then switch to 2AC?

After a very well executed eyeroll and sigh, he made another phone call, then reported back to me. He said that this train had a minimum distance requirement. Tickets could only be bought for a 600 km or greater segment. He said, "It is impossible."

Nothing is impossible in India. Nothing.

I crossed back over the tracks to the ticket office and bought the impossible ticket with no problems. When the train arrived--late, of course--I took a deep breath, grabbed the bar beside the door, placed my foot at the threshold, and charged.

Let's pause for a moment to explain something. Unreserved or general class train cars are mobile madness. Every inch of space was occupied--I mean, every inch of volume was occupied. The two tiers of benches were filled with people. People were lying in the overhead luggage rack. People were sitting on the floor. Some industrious person had rigged a hammock over the corridor to the toilet. Bags were dangling from all places that could hold them. The aisle was packed from front to pack with people, people, people. Cattle don't like to be packed this tightly. Claustrophobes are kindly requested to avoid general class.

You have to push to get beyond the door, and then push to get beyond the first corridor, and then push until you find a place to stop. When you stop being the pusher you become the pushed. Until the train leaves there will be more people boarding.

Ten minutes down the line I noticed something was... off. I touched my front left pocket. There was my mobile phone. I my front right pocket. It was empty. I touched my back right pocket. It was empty. No wallet.

Perhaps, while compulsively checking my ticket at the platform, I had slipped it into my back pocket instead of my front pocket. Or someone could have taken it from my front pocket, given all of the jostling as I boarded. No matter. The wallet was gone. I wasn't angry. I was amused. I was an easy target. I glanced around and met the eyes of several passengers. There was no way to tell who was the culprit. It could have been anyone. The setting sun shone through the port side window bars, turning all that brown skin a potent orange. It was almost beautiful.

First stop: Bhusaval Junction. Second stop: Burhanpur. I pushed through the crowd toward the door a little less gracefully than my entrance. Burhanpur is nowhere. It is a one-minute station stop. My car (bogey, if you'd like to use the local term) was eighteen cars down the train--200 or more meters away. Backpack strapped, camera bag in one hand, ravanhatta in the other hand (another story later to explain what this is), I leaned forward and ran down the platform. Breathing raggedly, I closed in on my destination. The whistle blew and the train started to move toward me. I grabbed the bar, swung on board. 1200 km later I was in New Delhi.

I doubt I lost more than $20 in cash in that wallet. I regret that, but not as much as losing my ATM card, which was my access to future cash for things like eating and sleeping. So I moved my return tickets forward. Forty-eight hours after running the Chandigarh Marathon I was already in the sky, facing westward.

I maintain, even after the loss, that I'm some kind of logistical savant--the bus from Aurangabad to Jalgaon, then the impromptu second-class ride and run to fulfill my reserved seat. I could pass clear across that country with nothing more than an idea. Next time, though, I'll be a bit more careful.

So. I'm back. A few people asked: am I going to write a wrap-up post from the trip? No. Maybe I'll make a wrap-up map that shows where I went. Also, I'm posting photos. The generous gypsies from the musician's colony in Jaisalmer and the rotten shopkeepers from Udaipur and six days of boulder-scrambling in Hampi--these are all full stories, not just paragraphs. India is a big, strange place that doesn't wrap up neatly in a little box. That would be impossible. Stay tuned.

[P.S.: I'm searching for meaningful work now that I'm back. In the meantime, I'm available for a variety of temporary work: web sites, various IT and database things, digital archival, outdoor work, whatever. If you've got a lead, give me a shout.]

Hop on: a desert cycling tale

One of the going away activities from my 2005 X PRIZE internship in the Mojave Desert, California, was a chance to eat lunch with Burt Rutan, Mike Melvill, and a few of the other rocket men of the Scaled Composities SpaceShipOne team. Midway through lunch, a gray-bearded man came in. He had been cycling across the desert, at midday in May, and wanted to show Burt his invention, a remarkable thermal material that could help the boys in Kuwait. ("Or Iraq," Burt corrected.) It was aluminum foil. He also had an older invention: Braille candy. ("You can taste the colors.")

Anyway, the point is that people cycling across the desert in the middle of the day are carrying more than a week's supply of The Crazy.

While I was in Jaisalmer I rented a bicycle from Narayan Cycles for a midday ride west out of the city, into the Thar Desert. Suriya suggested it would be a nice ride to see the Jain temples at Amar Sagar and the cenotaphs ("umbrellas") at Bara Bagh. Hell yes: adventure. (More on Suriya and family to come in a later episode. He's a good friend of mine in Jaisalmer.)

Before going, I glanced at a guidebook so I'd have a rough idea where I was going and what road to take to get there. All I had to do was to take the highway west from Hanuman Circle, near where I was staying. Amar Sagar would be 5 km to the west. A place called Mool Sagar would be 2 km beyond that. Perfect--a path and a distance.

Here bicycles are simple machines: one speed, crunchy bedspring seats, U-shaped handlebars set to the plane of the street. Jaisalmer has the simplest traffic I've seen yet in India, but it is still a challenging to dodge pedestrians, bicycles, scooters, motorcycles, autorickshaws, cars, jeeps, and cows. (And cowpatties.) Jaisalmer is a small city. Once you've passed Hanuman Circle you've passed everything but the military guards at the "Thundering 27" base, the guards with the red Japanese fans on their heads.

Then: nothing. The Thar Desert is not a scenic desert--at least not the small bit of it that I experienced. Granted, I'm prejudiced towards the Mojave Desert of California, the Chihuahuan Desert of Texas, the Canyonlands of Utah. These are legendary places to me, wonderlands of mountains and arches and canyons. The Thar Desert along MDR 53 wasn't even that scrubby. On one side of the road there was a landscape of smashed sandstone, perhaps being quarried for building projects in Jaisalmer and beyond. On both sides were sparsely distributed plants with large rubbery leaves.

The road less cycled

The children were friendly. From the sides of the road, from the dilapidated buildings set back in the dust, and from places I could hear but not see, children waved and yelled, "Hello!" Women filling water jugs at a leaking irrigation pipe giggle and said, "[Something something] gora" among themselves. Men passing on tractors slowly rotated their heads to follow my passing. Exchange the turbans for feedcaps and it was just like Central Illinois.

At Mool Sagar there was nothing. Nothing. I went an extra kilometer down the road to be certain. Nothing. Kuch nahin. There were a few miserable houses and rock-bounded plots with no houses at all--much like California City, California. How do people survive on the fringes? Why do people survive on the fringes? I turned back, left them there. Maybe it's better on the fringes, on the outside. At Mool Sagar I had an omelette and a chai with a few stone cutters before returning to the east, to Jaisalmer, capital of the fringes.

Settlement at the end of the world

Later, in the guidebook, I would read more closely about Mool Sagar: "...Mool Sagar, a run-down oasis with a Shiva Temple." Ah.

About 5 km from Jaisalmer there is a junction. Ten kilometers to the north of the junction is Lodurva, the home, I'm told, of a collection of Jain temples. I hadn't found Amar Sagar yet, so what the hell? Why not go to Lodurva?

There at the crossroads was a boy in a light blue ninth-standard school uniform. I prepared my best Amar Sagar kahan hai? (Where is Amar Sagar?) Before I could ask, he pointed at the back of my bike. I returned a quizzical look. He motioned again, and mimed that he wanted to sit on the rack. Oh, you want a ride? Yes, I'm going to Jaisalmer city. Let's do it. Hop on.

Off we went down the desert highway, a gora and his boy--or was it the other way around? We puttered along for 3 km, exchanging simple Hinglish questions and answers.

About 1.5 km from Jaisalmer, as we passed Indira Indoor Stadium and entered Defence Land, the boy on the back said something I didn't quite hear. "[Something] five [something] rupees." Ah, how cute. No, young man. I come as an informal emissary of the United States of America. I am here to do Good Work. I will not charge you for this strange ride across the desert. Go forth. Uncle Sam loves you.

"Money. From you to me."


"500 rupees?"


"500 rupees? I am poor boy."


"100 rupees?"


"500 rupees?"

And so on. The treacherous little bastard continued to ask for money. It's one thing to ask foreigners for money. It's another thing--and certainly not a problem--to ask for a free ride. But it takes a real deviant to cop a ride and then ask for money from the driver as he pedals through the noontime grit.

After another half kilometer of being hounded for cash, I stopped. "Get down." I rode the last stretch alone, free of one white man's burden.

Major District Road 53

2011 Jaipur Lit Fest Days 4 and 5: Myths of Mumbai, coincidences on the Nile, and cabbage

The 2011 Jaipur Literature Festival is over. Walking past the jampacked final panel--the standing easily outnumbering the seated 3-to-1--with Vikram Seth, under the colored banners, and through the gate of Diggi Palace a final time, I was a little melancholic. What next?

Enter the festival

On Day 4 I opened with the "Mumbai Narratives" session with Sonia Falerio and Gyan Prakash because--what the hell--I had just been to Mumbai and I'll be back and I wanted to hear some stories. Now I have another book to find and read when I return home: Mumbai Fables by Gyan Prakash. Like a fair number of authors at the event I had never heard of Gyan Prakash, but I was taken in as much by his motivations for his work as what he read. In Mumbai Fables Prakash says he was not looking for the stories themselves, but inquiring into the nature of how they were created--peering behind the curtain of the mythology, trying not only to understand what something is but how and why it got that way. That's important: as in engineering, always check your assumptions.

Anthony Sattin's session on the unlikely coincidence of Gustave Flaubert and Florence Nightingale, from his book A Winter on the Nile, was one of the top panels of the week. Imagine this: two young people go on a trip (independently--they never meet) because they are frustrated with their progress at home, then return to do major work which history has not forgotten. Yes. Familiar. Sattin's enthusiasm for the two main characters, the arcs of their lives, and the places in Egypt (and France and England) was exciting.

On Day 5, Priya Sarukkai Chhabria and Arunava Sinha spoke about "Translating the Classics." I have an enormous amount of respect for translators (and, more broadly, polyglots). To be able to decode works in a language different from one's native tongue--that seems like having keys to a level of the castle that few will ever see. The chief concern of the panels was with which version of the final language to use. When translating a classic, should one use an archaic English to create a sense of temporal distance? Should one use a contemporary voice? And what does one do with words and ideas that exist in the base language but not the final language? Of course the answers were: it depends.

I'll admit here: I harbor this pointless desire to be able to translate something myself--to be able to open the locked door with my own hand. That's why I attended one more session with Katherine Russell Rich, the "Dreaming in Sanskrit" panel with Lee Siegel. I envy and admire the focus she exhibited to spend a year learning Hindi in Udaipur, then writing about it in Dreaming in Hindi. Hooray for the doers of the world, in whatever form they appear.

Choose Irvine Welsh

To end the day and the festival, Irvine Welsh read from his upcoming book, Reheated Cabbage. I've never read any Irvine Welsh, and his session was up against Indian literature titan Vikram Seth. I've not read anything by Vikram Seth yet either, but I'm aware of him and his books are on my list, so I decided to give Irvine Welsh a try, a final attempt at broadening my experience. Maybe it was the Scottish accent, or the unhesitating use of street language, or the straightforward stride through some putrid subject matter--anyway, the point is that Irvine Welsh ended the festival, for me, on a sustained high note.

I enjoyed the 2011 Jaipur Literature Festival--I'm happy that it was suggested to me and that I modified my trip to Jaipur to attend. There is the immediate question, "What next?" that applies to my remaining 57 days in India. But the value of the festival to me was listening to accomplished people on stage and conversing with members of the audience and how it all gave me the confidence to consider the greater "What next?" that will exist when I go home.

Jaipur Lit Fest Days 2 and 3: Courtesans, migrations, and the madness of crowds

Day 2 of the Jaipur Literature Festival was slammed. Packed. Jammed. If you wanted to get your Indian experience of moving in colossal crowds, well, there you were. I'm not sure what made Day 2 so much more dense. People coming for the party that the festival is? Loads of schoolkids? I don't know. The days of hosting the festival at Diggi Palace are numbered. All four speaking venues were overflowing.

In the morning of Day 2, I watched the "A Time Apart" panel with J.P. Das and Rita Chowdhury. Ms. Chowdhury gave a presentation on her book about Chinese-Indians living in Assam who were, after border conflicts with China, all arrested, moved to concentration camps, and then deported to China even though they had been living in India for generations. I don't recall the name of the book, though I remember it was Hindi only. I liked her description of it, though. I'll find it later--perhaps a good place to focus myself on reading Hindi better.

One of the reasons I attended the previous panel was to get an early seat for the following presentation, "One amazing thing" with Chitra Devakurni Banerjee. At the end of the previous panel, people started packing the back of the tent. At the end of the panel they poured in, occupying every stool and divan so densely that it created its own gravity field. They packed in deep in the back. They crawled in from under the edges of the tent. It was intense. Even the festival organizer had to come to the microphone and ask for help getting the authors into the tent so they could speak.

But it wasn't Ms. Banerjee. It was two other guys and, to my undertrained ears, incomprehensible. It was in Hindi. And I was trapped there in the Kingfisher Baithak tent, not looking forward to squeezing my way out. For thirty minutes I sat there, trying to at least get the essence of what was going on, but to no avail. I finally left when I felt awkward not getting the jokes. As I crawled out under the tent myself, I saw an army of people outside the tent, listening, ravenous to get inside. If anyone knows who that was at 12pm, and again for a repeat performance at 1:30 on the Front Lawns, please inform me. I'm curious what could make a crowd of Indians go absolutely bonkers like that.

Ah... madness... what else, what else?

Rory Stewart talked about his book, The Spaces in Between, and how his skepticism of how useful the big cash and big armies approach to "fixing" Afghanistan led him to walk across the country for eighteen months.

There was a panel on travel writing, "On the Road," with Anthony Sattin, Katie Hickman, Rory Stewart, Pallavi Aiyar, and William Fiennes. The notable portion of that was Katie Hickman reading from her book about traveling with a circus in Mexico. She read from her own favorite part of the book, which happened after she stopped following the circus and visited a migratory home for Monarch butterflies. What struck me was that I expected a short description of the place and sight, but she turned it into a fantastic world in which you were immersed in the Monarchs themselves. I didn't catch the name of the book. There is so much that I missed.

Day 2 ended with Katie Hickman and Muzaffar Ali in the panel "From Courtesans East and West" in which they described and compared, yes, courtesans from Lucknow and London. Mr. Ali's descriptions tried to place the courtesans of Lucknow in a finer, more elegant, more learned place. (This relates to a movie of his, I think. I don't know the title. Can someone fill me in?) Ms. Hickman focused a bit more in her book on the humorous aspects of their place in society--not bawdy descriptions, no, but a history of the tangled web of mistresses and courtesans and society men and women that existed in London. It wasn't something that I expected from what I had assumed was totally straight-laced 1800s England.

Day 3... I missed most of this for the Jaipur Half Marathon. Stay tuned for notes on that, etc.

The one full panel I saw was "Migritude" with Abha Dawesar, Shailaja Patel, and Pauline Melville. It was hit and miss. What I appreciated most was Ms. Melville's incisive comments and answers. For example, the other two opened with poems and stories from their books, but Ms. Melville opened by pointing at the list of sponsors in the back and accusing them of forcing many migrations with their actions of opening and closing facilities around the world, displacing and replacing thousands of people. An unexpected zing--I think I'll check her out again on Day 4.

2011 Jaipur Lit Fest Day 1: The earnestness of art, mathematical chimps, and the literature of cancer

Day 1 of the Jaipur Literature Festival ( is over. It was my first ever day at the festival, and I had an enormously good time. Thanks to Supriya for suggesting it.

I used the word "enormous" intentionally. The place is packed. There are four main stages, plus assorted vendor stalls, cafés, common areas, etc. Sometimes it seems too enormous for Diggi Palace, but it's like going to see a concert where the energy of the performance is complemented by the energy of the crowd moving in and around itself--a kind of static electricity from all of the rubbing shoulders.

Night 1 at the Jaipur Literature Festival

My favorite panel of the day was the Emperor of Maladies panel with Siddhartha Mukherjee and Katherine Russell Rich. The title of the panel comes from Mr. Mukherjee's book, The Emperor of Maladies, a history--a biography, even--of cancer. And Ms. Rich was there talking about her 1999 book, The Red Devil, a story of her own history with cancer.

So, yes, my favorite panel was on the topic of cancer--a dismal-sounding subject indeed. But the focus wasn't that dismal. It wasn't what I would call entertaining, though. It was engaging. Ms. Rich has never gotten rid of cancer. Eighteen years later she still deals with its recurrence, and she makes her way slowly through the crowd during the day. For good or for ill, that's the most compelling part of the story. That's what makes her, in my opinion, a good role model. On one hand you have a Lance Armstrong, who recovers to become King of the World. On the other hand you have someone who survives but still has to live with the day-to-day problems. That seems more real, or at least more applicable. Suresh S., a Jaipur native, said to me after the panel that he is going to recommend the book to a family member dealing with cancer.

Mr. Mukherjee's presentation was also good--I'm more likely even to go read The Emperor of Maladies than The Red Devil--but I'll focus on Ms. Rich. I saw her for the first time in Boston in 2008, when she was on tour for her latest book, Dreaming in Hindi, which I assumed she was in India to present. Obviously she wasn't. I found her later and asked a few questions about it. Listen: I don't like bothering authors or musicians or performing people of whatever kind after the show. My baseline assumption is that they're getting hassled enough as it is, so maybe I should give them a break. Besides, they're not going to be very congenial or thoughtful when harried anyway.

She was warm nonetheless--me and my preoccupations, etc. I asked her if Nand, a wise character and mentor (I referred to him as a sort of "Yoda," because I'm a dork) in the memoir, had read Dreaming in Hindi yet. She said that he had, and developed a greater respect for her because of it. He's not just anybody. He's an eminent Rajasthani poet. His deeper respect was a valuable thing to earn. I enjoyed the book also, so I was pleased for her. We talked a bit also about her break to come to India--she spent a year in Udaipur learning Hindi--and my own. I did a fabulously timid job talking about writing on running in India--see previous paragraph about baseline hassle--so I'll try to explain more passionately about what all I'm doing. I'm here in India because I think I can write. I'm here on the front edge, on the precipice of doing the thing, so maybe it's time to own up to it. I am, after all, at a literature festival surrounded by authors who stopped thinking they had an idea and actually crafted the idea into something real. She also asked what I was going to become when I returned home. I didn't have an answer for that. Like so many other experiences here: something to think about.

I got to see Junot Díaz in action. I made sure to say that like I'm really familiar with him. I'm not. I am aware of him as a name only--he's a Pulitzer Prize winner. He teaches at MIT, so I'm discovering, in India, a notable writer who essentially lives down the street from me at home. Yeah. Pay attention, etc. So I can't tell you about his work. And I'm typing this damned thing by mobile phone, so I'm not going to look it up either. I can tell you that he was terribly funny and entertaining, but also lapsed into extended moments of earnestness where he explained his approach and experience with the art of literature.

"We read books as individuals, but understand them as a collective. [...] Reading a novel is an invitation to form a community."

"America's entire relationship with art is like... 'Wait, you're still here?' "

And so on. Junot Díaz just jumped onto my to-read list and clawed his way toward the top.

I stepped into Alex Bellos' presentation, Alex's Adventures in Numberland, quite arbitrarily. I didn't have a program yet. I wanted to get out of the sun. I stepped in and discovered it was a book and presentation about math. Well, what the hell? I guess that's a nice way for an engineer like me to get acquainted with the festival.

It was entertaining. It was way better than just a time pass. There were videos of chimpanzees demonstrating not only their trained understanding of the cardinality and ordinality of numbers--amount and order, I learned, are the two qualities that make numbers numbers--but that they could recognize and remember them faster than humans. There were pictures of Japanese schoolkids using abacuses (abaci?) both to compute and compete. Mr. Bellos mentioned that there is no research that shows using an abacus improves mathematical cognition. None. But, as he shows, the abacus makes it fun, and the students excel at it. That made me think. Math is a slog for me--no fun at all. I took calculus, etc., because I needed the credits to get into and pass out of engineering. I'm now curious what it would be like to learn math or learn about the history of math as someone who wants to learn it, not someone who has to learn it.

And on and on. It is, like so many other occurrences in India, an awful lot to deal with at once. It is simultaneously fun and informative--a heady combo indeed.

Kolkata: Down the Maidan

Monuments are the highlight of tourism. Like an entire sporting match condensed to a series of big plays for television shows, monuments draw the casual viewer's eyes to the most striking sights.

Before we get too far: I'm not going to attempt irony here. I like monuments and distilled tourism myself. It gives the wandering ignorant (me) something to grasp. Here in Kolkata I need all the help I can get grasping anything. Even I have visited the Victoria Memorial, one of the city's chief monuments, twice now; my first was 2006. It is an impressive play and I am not above taking cues from the guidebook. (Beware anyone who says "real India.")

I like to walk--not out of a perverse sense of cheapness, but just because I like to walk. I walk at home and I walk here. I like to see and feel--and, for good or ill, smell and breathe--the scene from the ground. Walking shows the connective tissue between monuments. Walking gives dimension to the place that would otherwise be glossed over.

In Kolkata one of those dimensions is honking--cars, trucks, buses, motorcycles, even ting-a-linging bicycles. They honk when passing or turning to say, "I am here! I am here!" They erupt in a tremendous peal of honking when the traffic light changes from red to green. They honk in that good old fashioned American way to inform an offending driver what will be performed on his mother tonight.

The sum of all this honking and vrooming, of all of this exhaust inhalation and harrowing street crossing, is a stressful experience. I enjoy it, in a way, because it is culturally strange and thus a Valuable Experience, but I am sure this noise will be the soundtrack in my cubicle in hell.

One day, quite by accident, I discovered the Maidan. Everybody breathe in; hold it. Now breathe out; say, "Ah." You've just shared my experience of the Maidan.

The Maidan is a huge open green area stretching several kilometers between the city center and the Hooghly River. It is a wonderful and literal breath of fresh air that I was lucky to find. After grabbing another kati roll for lunch I was trying to find the Park Street metro station, but I got sidetracked and lost crossing Jawaharlal Nehru Road. (I will explain later: the Sikhs distracted me.)

Instead of the metro station, I found a park and a game of cricket--a fair substitute, if a bit short on transportation opportunities. I am fascinated by the sport, not because I find it terribly exciting--it's like baseball, except the guy who throws the ball is an athlete--but because I've lived so long without encountering a sport that a third of the world plays. In this little bit of heaven--the northern tip of the Maidan is even called Eden Gardens--the traffic noise was somewhat filtered by the trees and the members of the tourist support industry (read: beggars, vendors, and drivers) were no nowhere to be found. And there, with no monuments bigger than the wickets, I spent a good hour watching a game.

The next day I walked across JN Road, purposefully this time, with another kati roll--single egg double chicken, excellent, excellent--and watched the cricket players, this time performing drills, batting practice, sprints, fielding, etc. Walking south down the Maidan, toward the Victoria Memorial looming through the hazy sun, I found more of the same: cricket as far as I could see, ranging in skill and professionalism from the games with spectators on the north side to kids with tennis balls in overlapping fields on the south side.

I watched there on the north end, which also had the benefit of shade trees, before wandering down the Maidan, past the cricket matches, ponies, kites, goats, and snack vendors, until I made it to Queen's Way, the street in front of the Victoria Memorial, where the world again lapsed into monumental sights and cacophony.

[Photos, of course are forthcoming.]

Indian itinerary, take two

Thanks to all who helped me with the previous itinerary: Kriti, Supriya, Palash, Abhishek, Pradeep, Anmol, etc. We're supposed to call things like this crowdsourcing, right? To hell with that--I like to deal in individuals, not crowds.

Whatever the case, the deal has changed since last time; I did mention that all plans were flexible. Supriya notified me of the Jaipur Literature Festival. I'm there. I'm so there. I was going to skip Rajasthan on this trip because I thought that the place merited its own separate vacation, but I'm going there now. How long? I'm not sure. I could use your help there--see phase 4 below.

Here is the newer version of the itinerary. If you prefer maps--I prefer maps--see 2011 India (looks better in Google Earth: 2011_India.kmz).

Phase 1: Kolkata

  • 29 Dec-1 Jan: New Delhi. This will be my second New Years in New Delhi, or third if you count this.
  • 1-4 Jan: Kolkata. Supriya advised me of the open-air book market on College Street. Palash wants to go up to Shantiniketan.

Phase 2: Chandigarh

  • 5-6 Jan: Haridwar. Haridwar is an unnecessary side trip between Delhi and Chandigarh, but I was interested in visiting it after reading Eric Newby's Slowly Down the Ganges. Haridwar was his starting point [1].
  • 7-10 Jan: Chandigarh

Phase 3: Mumbai

  • 11 Jan: Chandigarh to Mumbai (by plane)
  • 11-19 Jan: Mumbai

Phase 4: Jaipur

28 January through 5 February is wide open. Kriti suggested a few places: Sariska Tiger Reserve, Ranthambore National Park, Pushkar. Also, I saw some photos of a ghost town 80 km away: Bhangarh. (Excuse the mentions of "actual" ghosts in the linked article--I'm not looking for ghosts in ghost towns in India anymore than I was looking for ghosts in Panamint City, California.)

I see Anmol has sent me some advice about Jaipur. Perhaps you also have some ideas on what I can do in the area--where area can be defined as whatever distance I can cover and get to Delhi a major airport on 5 or 6 February.

Update 2010-12-10: I have been directed, quite persistently, to go to Jaisalmer. I am an American desert rat myself so: OK. In fact, had I only been laid off a few months later, when the snow would have mostly been gone from the Panamint Range, I'd be bumming around that desiccated stretch from Mojave Desert in California to the Canyonlands of Utah. Yeah, tough choices. 

  • 20-26 Jan: Jaipur
  • 27-30 Jan: Jaisalmer
  • 31 Jan-1 Feb: Jodhpur
  • 2-3 Feb: Kumbhalgarh
  • 4-5 Feb: Udaipur
  • 6 Feb: Delhi Ahmedabad

Phase 5: Bangalore and Pondicherry

I have spent less than 24 hours in Bangalore on my previous trip to India--really, just a stop on the way to Vellore. Supriya suggested that the Blossom Book House is legendary. OK, sounds good. What else? I don't know.

  • 7-10 Feb: Bangalore
  • 11 Feb: Bangalore to Pondicherry (by train)
  • 12 Feb: Pondicherry
  • 13 Feb: Auroville Marathon
  • 14-16 Feb: Pondicherry
    • Gingi Fort
  • 17-18 Feb: Bangalore

Phase 6: Bangalore to Mumbai

I have now completely left out southern India from my itinerary. No offense is intended to my South Indian friends. I'm not skipping it entirely, I just think the region deserves more attention--its own completely separate vacation--and I don't want to blow through it too quickly.

  • 20-21 Feb: Hampi
  • 22-23 Feb: Badami or Bijapur
  • 25-26 Feb: Mumbai

Alternatively, instead of going to Badami or Bijapur, and then going from there to Mumbai via Solapur, I could go west from Hampi to Goa and then north to Mumbai. This is an alternative instead of primary choice because something seems fundamentally sad about hanging out in a beach community by myself. Or I could hack out any intermediate stops and go to Mumbai earlier, or spend more time in Bangalore on the front end of this segment. Whatever's Right.

Phase 7: Mumbai to Delhi

I have three locations listed here between Mumbai and Delhi. The only one I'm settled on is Ahmednagar; I met a photographer on Flickr based in Ahmednagar who posted quite a few images of his hometown, so I'll try to meet him there.

The other two? Aurangabad appears to be a well-traveled stop for tourists: Ajanta Caves, Ellora Caves, Daulatabad, etc., are in the vicinity. My heart is not set on Aurangabad, so I could skip it.

However, Burhanpur is the city that catches my eye. Check out this fort: Asirgarh Fort. That is a capital-F Fort. I have... no idea how I'm going to get there. I can figure out how to get in and out of Burhanpur because it is on the main Mumbai-Delhi line. But I haven't figured out (a) where to find a place in Burhanpur or (b) how to get to Asirgarh, which is 20 km north. Hmm. On one hand: perhaps there is a reason no one goes there. On the other hand: I smell a challenge.

  • 28 Feb: Ahmednagar
  • 2-4 Mar: Aurangabad
  • 6-7 Mar: Burhanpur

Phase 8: Delhi

  • 8-11 Mar: Delhi
    • 9 Mar: Delhi, Cricket World Cup, India vs. Netherlands
  • 12-15 Mar: Farther north India (Amritsar, etc.)
  • 16-19 Mar: Khajuraho
  • 20-22 Mar: Delhi
  • 23 Mar: Delhi to Chicago to St. Louis

OK--if you have any advice, please leave a comment, let me know what you think.

  1. Two hundred yards below the bridge and some twelve hundred miles from the Bay of Bengal the boat grounded in sixteen inches of water... I looked upstream to the bridge but all those who had been waving and weeping had studiously turned their backs. The boatmen uttered despairing cries for assistance but the men at the bridge bent to their tasks with unwonted diligence. As far as they were concerned we had passed out of their lives. We might never have existed.

    [back to text]

85 days in India; or, Peculiar travel suggestions

(2010-12-08: Updated.)

On 27 December I will depart the States for India. On 23 March I will return. The chronologically curious will note: that's 87 days. (Subtract one day in a plane on each end for 85 days.) It's not quite a geologic age, but it is a long time.

For the purposes of this post, I will leave out the why [1]. Instead I will outline the trip, and ask for your advice. Some dates and places, e.g., the Mumbai Marathon, are firmly fixed; those items are noted in bold. However, all other items are quite flexible and represent only a notional itinerary that can be abandoned for better notions.

Like any first draft, there will be a number of mistakes, I'm sure, so don't be bashful about saying that something is stupid. Ready, aim...

Phase 1: Kolkata

  • 29-30 Dec: New Delhi
  • 31 Dec-3 Jan: Kolkata

Phase 2: Chandigarh

Here I could use some advice on places to stay in Chandigarh or Delhi.

  • 4 Jan: Kolkata to Delhi (by plane)
  • 5-6 Jan: Haridwar? Or Delhi?
  • 7-10 Jan: Chandigarh

Phase 3: Mumbai

The basic idea here: spend some time in Mumbai, then go on a loop through Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, then return to Mumbai.

  • 11 Jan: Chandigarh to Mumbai (by plane)
  • 11-19 Jan: Mumbai
  • 20-28 Jan: Ahmednagar, Aurangabad, Burhanpur
  • 29-31 Jan: Mumbai

Phase 4: Mumbai to Pondicherry

At the least, I want to stop at Hampi, as one of my Kannadiga friends says I must. Anything else via buses and trains on the way to Bangalore is a bonus.

  • 31 Jan-9 Feb: Bijapur, Badami, Hampi
  • 10 Feb: Bangalore
  • 11 Feb: Bangalore to Pondicherry (by train)
  • 12 Feb: Pondicherry
  • 13 Feb: Auroville Marathon

Phase 5: Tamil Nadu

After the marathon on 13 Feb and until the India vs. Netherlands cricket match on 9 Mar, all plans can be changed. I can go anywhere and can do anything with anyone and anytime. It doesn't have to be in the south,--I could fly to Ahmedabad and cruise around Gujarat, what the hell?--it's just a first go at an itinerary.

  • 14-16 Feb: Pondicherry
  • 17-23 Feb: Tiruchirappalli, Thanjavur, Rameswaram
  • 24-26 Feb: Chennai
  • 27 Feb-1 Mar: Bangalore
  • 1 Mar: Bangalore to Delhi (by plane)

Phase 6: Delhi

  • 2-7 Mar: North India?
  • 8-11 Mar: Delhi
    • 9 Mar: Delhi, Cricket World Cup, India vs. Netherlands
  • 12-14 Mar: Khajuraho
  • 15-18 Mar: Agra
  • 19-22 Mar: Delhi
  • 23 Mar: Delhi to Chicago to St. Louis

To get a flavor of what that looks like on a map, go here: India 2011.

I have left out the timing of various bus and train journeys--it made the itinerary above, which is already jumbled, look like something that could only be understood with the help of heavy pharmaceuticals. Let's just say that I know that it will take the better part of a day to travel, for example, from Delhi to Khajuraho, and I have accounted for that in each trip. Probably.


When it comes to travel, the best places I've ever visited have been recommended by friends. This takes a variety of forms. For example, in 2006 it led to me going to dinner at [we drank a lot of wine and I don't remember] in Cadaques, Spain, with Alvin and Jorge. And Jorge pointed me to Turronería Sirvent in Barcelona for ice cream. Both were fabulous--the former, especially.

The point is: although I will mention some things below that are interesting to me, my first priority is to meet friends that I know and friends that I don't yet know, and try the things they like. I don't have a bucket list or 1001 things to see before I die; I'm here for the ride.

What would I like to see?

  • I like books--especially libraries and secondhand bookstores. (Via email I just received some absolutely and outstandingly thoughtful advice on bookstores to visit in Mumbai.)
  • I like sports. When I'm not running one of the two-and-a-half marathons I've signed up for, I'd run with anyone from a Delhi or Bangalore or wherever running club that wants to go for a run. Also, I know nothing about cricket--there is a bat and a ball, but apparently it is different than baseball?--and I'd like to learn to play, or watch a real game, whichever.
  • I like music--especially music that isn't popular music. First person to take me to an Indian version of Morphine or the Dismemberment Plan wins.
  • I like history--which is to say I could amuse myself for days walking in and around old things. It is no accident that I live in a museum in a National Historical Park.
  • I like wandering in hills and mountains--but this is not something I will allow to be rushed, so I'll save it for another trip.

What do you think? Where should I go?

You don't need to suggest something grand. I don't need 85 days of Taj Mahals. Listen: if you came from India to Illinois, I could take you to Chicago to the top of the Sears Tower--I guess they call it the Willis Tower now, don't they? Ridiculous.--but I'd rather take you to Fulton County, to the Cedar Creek. Never heard of it? It's a secret, and it's not great by any absolute measure, but let me tell you: my enthusiasm would infect you, and it would be the best damned stream you've ever seen.

  1. I am tempted, here, to say something faux-clever as my reason, perhaps I'll lift a line from Kilgore Trout in Kurt Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions:

    To be
    the eyes
    and ears
    and conscience
    of the Creator of the Universe,
    you fool.

    I could pretty much steal lines from Kurt Vonnegut all day long. Bonus points if you can identify the second half of the title. [back to text]

You can't get there from here

My parents now live in Chester, Illinois -- home of Popeye -- which lies on a bluff above the Mississippi River. Therefore I am now fascinated with rivers, especially the Mississippi River. I grew up near the confluence of the Spoon River and the Illinois River, but I didn't care. I am not a river rat. Give me a mountain instead. Now, however, I at least appreciate rivers.

One of the things I can not possibly explain to you about my newfound attachment to rivers is my enchantment with the ferries that cross them. This seems like a serious anachronism to me. Bridges, see? Bridges. Bridges with their complex steel frames spanning the channels of the river seem, to me, like they should have put all ferries out of business. At the very least, bridges seem modern, like they belong in the technological here-and-now. When I see a ferry I check over my shoulder to make sure there aren't any pterodactyls flying overhead. So, when I see a ferry crossing our country's major river, why I simply have to take advantage of the opportunity to use it.

Plus I think it is exciting to be out on the open water. The Mississippi is like a great big moving sea. It is immense and terrifying. Like a mountain, it is too massive to care about something small and insignificant like me. It's humbling.

The first time I saw a ferry over the Mississippi River was at Grafton, Illinois. On New Years Day 2009 I took a meandering course from Mechanicsburg to Chester. I wanted to see the confluence of the Illinois River and Mississippi River. Why? Because it is there. I didn't want to go to Missouri that day, so I just sat and watched the Brussels-Grafton Ferry at work on the Illinois River.

Brussels-Grafton Ferry over the Illinois River

(Bonus: here's a picture from another Mississippi River ferry I saw on this trip, the Ste. Genevieve-Modoc Ferry. Crazy. It's like there is a secret underworld of hidden river crossings.)

My curiosity was stoked. I had to go back and ride a ferry. In December 2009 I took a meandering course the other direction, from Chester to Mechanicsburg. There I took the Grafton Ferry to Illinois. It was great -- whipping winter wind, whitecaps on the water, the slow roll of the boat.

Crossing the Mississippi River at Grafton

OK. Now, let's go to the present, last week, July 2010. I landed in St. Louis, rented a car, and aimed for Fulton County, Illinois. Of course I was going to take a ferry, but this time I wanted to try a new one -- the Golden Eagle Ferry to Calhoun County, Illinois (an interesting place that exists on a peninsula between the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers.

Driving northwest from St. Louis toward the river, it became apparent that spring and summer 2010 have been a little wet down there.

Let's see what this baby can do

Let's go to Illinois

Can't get there from here

Ah well, maybe next time. I backtracked, crossed the river -- on a bridge -- at Alton, Illinois, stopped for a catfish sandwich at O'Jan's Hot Fish Sandwiches in Grafton, and heaved and rolled through Illinois River country on IL-100 all the way to Lewistown.

Also, I checked out three books from the library before heading here from Massachusetts: Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain (whose works I have not read since they were forced on us in grade school; hey, turns out Twain is actually a funny guy when he's not being used to bludgeon your fifth-grade skull); Cahokia: Ancient America's Great City on the Mississippi by Timothy Pauketat; and Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America by John M. Barry. I wanted to read about the Mississippi while I was by the Mississippi. It seemed only right.