Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Camel Trekking for the Broken Legged

"He keeps looking at me," I complain somewhat unreasonably to the camel driver.

"Camel is not looking at you. He is looking for other camel," the driver says.

"I am not a camel," I carefully explain to the camel.

The camel continues staring at me. He blinks his long-lashed eyes and snorts in derision.

At a prompt from the driver, who clicks his tongue and tugs the lead rope, my camel faces forward once more and continues walking into the sun. I gently rock back and forth in the saddle as we trek the golden, glowing crests of sand dunes. The dunes seem to stretch into infinity, though in actuality, they only stretch into the border of Pakistan. I am in the Thar Desert, located over 40 km from Jaisalmer, India. But how did I get here?

"Bed rest one week!" the doctor sternly tells me two days prior. "BED REST ONE WEEK," he writes in all caps on top of my hospital papers and X-ray chart. "And move your toes often," he adds seemingly as an afterthought.

I wriggle my toes furiously as I wobble onto the warm sands of the Thar Desert. Two days have now passed since I broke my foot, two days in which my activity has slowed but never stopped. My friend Katie is jaunting through a more distant stretch of the desert on a fast and bumpy 90 minute camel ride. This is what I would have liked to have done, to have spent a couple hours or even a full day on a camel. My own, slow 30-minute walk near the camp, though, is enough to make me happy. I feel it is a fair compromise between how I want to spend my time and how the doctors want me to spend my time.

As we slowly trek up and down the long sand dunes, the camel driver tells me funny rhymes. He claims they are old Indian aphorisms.

No hurry, no worry. No chicken, no curry.

No work, no wife. No chai, no life.

No woman don't cry.

The camels are restless as we ride them. It's mating season and the drive to find a mate is very high. To prevent one especially romantic camel from wandering off last night, the driver had bound three of its legs together with rope. But true love always finds a way. By morning, the camel was gone.

{my other means of desert transportation}

During my time in the desert, I smile and I laugh. I chatter happily to anyone who will listen. But it is not easy for me. None of it is easy for me. Not bouncing over rough and sometimes unpaved roads in an open jeep to get to the desert, not hopping one-legged through sand, not mounting the camel, who nearly throws me off in the unexpected pitching first backward and then forward as it unfolds its long, skinny legs to stand, not riding the camel while carefully holding out my injured leg so that the hard cast does not bounce against the camel's back and spook it. But I do it, all of it, even the hardest bits. I even truly enjoy it.

Anything, now, seems possible.

{clouds the colour of fire in the Thar Desert}

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Touring Jaisalmer Without a Leg to Stand On

Jaisalmer is a city that seems to lie on the edge of magic, a place where any minute you might slip from reality and into a fairy tale. D, Katie, and I are at an elevated plateau overlooking the city center. Before us stretch miles of amber-hued buildings all built from the same golden sandstone. Though the windows, balconies, and doorways all boast unique detailing, the city still has an undeniable uniformity to it. All the buildings have the appearance of belonging together, with homes and shops that continue to be built in much the same way as they have been built for the past several hundred years. It is impossible for me to discern the difference between those structures that are several centuries old and those constructed only a decade past.

As we get in the car, I ask about the intricately detailed tapestries and bedspread in the hotel. Does D happen to know where we can buy anything like that? I have already fallen madly in love with the bedspread in our room.

As a matter of fact, D knows where we can buy items exactly like that. Well, almost exactly – every piece is unique but made by the same people. D drives us to a shop near the center of town. The shop owner smiles at us. He helps me settle on a bench and offers us a tray with three little cups of chai on it.

"Where are you from?" he asks.

"We're American," I say, "but we live in Korea."

"Ah, is that North Korea or South Korea?" he asks.

The shop keeper then opens up a photo album of the women who fashion and sew his textiles. He points out that the women pictured, some of them bending over long pieces of fabric with a needle, others touching their loom as though they were about to play music on it, belong to a cooperative comprised of Indian and Pakistani women who live in poor villages in the nearby desert. Now that’s he’s gained our interest – point to him for gaining my empathy before the bargaining even begins – he starts to bring out the goods.

Shopping in a traditional Indian store is probably the closest I’ll ever come to feeling like royalty. The sides of the store are stacked from floor to ceiling with neatly folded textiles, which the owner and his son bring out and unfurl before us with a certain regal flourish. What interests me? They are willing to lay their entire store before me. It is a surprisingly effective selling technique. I ask about bedspreads, so the owner pulls out a pile.

The owner takes out one beautiful quilt after another, but I softly refuse the items presented to me. They are all lovely, but none of them are necessary.

"Wait," Katie says, as a coverlet sewn of dreamy blue and green patches is laid upon the floor. "Put that one in a pile for me."

"Would you like to see tablecloths?" the shopkeeper asks.

"No, thanks. We don't own tables," I reply. "Do you have a pink quilt?"

He lays an orange quilt before me, and then a yellow one. I shake my head. Then he pulls out a red quilt. It sparkles from every angle. This is the lure the catches me.

"I want to see more like that!" I exclaim.

"Oh this? The silk patches have been cut from antique wedding saris. It’s a quilt for newlyweds."

{my wedding quilt}

"I could get married," I defensively mumble under my breath. The shop owner brings out a heap of wedding quilts and unfurls them before me.

Glittering things are very much necessary, I decide, but financial restraint prompts me to settle on just one. The owner spreads out a hand-sewn quilt consisting of pink, red, and teal patches. It has sparkly golden elephants, birds outlined in glittering sequins, and delicately-beaded lotus flowers embroidered on it.

Details on my quilt:

It is now the shiniest thing I own. And I own a lot of shiny things.

"May I show you some table cloths?" the shop owner asks Katie.

"No, we don't have tables," Katie responds. "We live in very small apartments, just one room."

Katie buries herself in a stack of decorative patchwork tapestries. I ask to see pashminas.

"Here, let me show you some table cloths," the shopkeeper tells me, pulling down a small pile of them.

"No," I say. "We still haven't got tables since the last time you asked."

With great reluctance, the shopkeeper puts back the table cloths and brings out a pile of soft pashminas, hand-woven and with tasseled ends, for my perusal. I choose one that's a rich royal blue and embroidered with hundreds of starry gold flowers and vines. The shop owner tells me that a woman spent over a month weaving and embroidering it.

Temptations of the shop are many. By the time we leave, Katie and I have amassed far more than we meant to buy but still not as much as we'd like to buy.

"Where next?" D asks. "It will be sunset in less than an hour."

Katie and I both shrug. Our research on Jaisalmer was minimal and what's more, we're not sure which places, exactly, I can physically manage on one leg and a walker.

We get into the car and D drives us to the outside of a famous mansion. Peering through the entrance, it seems long and labyrinthine. Not ideal for my current state. We keep driving.

{Patwa Ki Haveli Mansion}

We turn down one road and up another, just beyond the city proper, and park outside a lake. Gadi Sagar was built in 1367 to act as the main water supply for the entire city. It is surrounded on all sides by cenotaphs and shrines, domes and ghats, all fashioned from the achingly beautiful gold sandstone.

{Gadi Sagar}

We see about a dozen boats on Gadi Sagar, most of them floating empty along the edge of the lake.

"Let's rent a paddle boat," I quip.

"Alright, come on, then," says D.

D and Katie lead the way onto the floating, shifting docks and I hobble-hop behind them. We climb into a three-seater paddle boat that bobbles in the water each time one of us enters it. It is bright green and made of plastic. It reminds me of an oversized bathtub toy.

When the sun sinks into the horizon, the entire area lights up gold, "[nature's] hardest hue to hold."

Not bad for my first day of bed rest. Not bad at all.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Hospital Tour of India

“Ow-ow-ow-ow-AAYYEEEEEE!” I eloquently explain to the doctor, who simultaneously asks me where it hurts and pushes down on the puffiest bits of my injured foot. He is to be the first of three doctors I will see that night in Jaisalmer, each exam beginning with that same painful introduction.

It was not exactly an easy feat to get me to the hospital in the first place. Oh, the hotel is in possession of a car that can drive me there without problem. It is more a matter of overcoming my fortitude of denial. With my usual combination of stubbornness and optimism, I insist that the lump on my foot is no more than the sign of a bad sprain.

Upon our arrival at the Shahi Palace Hotel, I almost immediately crawl to the rooftop. It has, one of the hotel employees informs me, both a restaurant and a great view. The view is, indeed, magnificent. In the light of the dying sun, the Golden Fort seems to glow from deep within the ancient stone. Long stone benches, covered in an assortment of mustard yellow and ochre red cushions, jut over the sides of the Shahi’s roof. I prop my foot on a bolster and stretch out across one of the benches. I order a large mug of steamy masala chai. Someone drapes a blanket over me.

{rooftop of the Shahi Palace Hotel}

One of the hotel workers offers me a tube of ointment, which I gently and optimistically daub on my foot.

“I think the swelling’s going down,” I lie to both Katie and myself.

Katie looks dubiously at my super-sized foot but amicably nods in agreement.

{"Good luck storming the castle!"}

Jaisalmer is a sleepy town at the edge of the Thar Desert. I feel at peace for the first time in India while basking in the remnants of the sun. From my bird's eye vantage point, I can see the edge of town. Passing on the street are just a couple of motorbikes, a few ambling cows, a young goatherd boy and his charges. There is the faintly melodic sound of tiny bells as the herd passes beneath the hotel. Later that night the silence will be broken by revelers at the Titanic Hotel, which is across the street, as a group of men sings a passionate version of the chorus to "My Heart Will Go On." After the last notes of their song die down, Jaisalmer will return to quietness once more.

It isn’t until I crawl back down from the roof to my hotel room that the hotel owner sees me. He first encourages, then kindly tricks me, into going to the hospital. Our dialogue goes something like this:

D: Oh, that looks bad, very bad. You need to see a doctor.

Me: No, not so bad. (hides wincing) Just need a good night’s sleep and I’ll be ready for our camel trek tomorrow.

D: I don’t think you can ride a camel like that.

M: I’m getting better. The swelling’s gone down.

D looks to Katie for affirmation. She shakes her head slightly in the negative.

D: If you come to the hospital, they can give you drugs for your foot. You’ll enjoy your camel trek more if the swelling goes down.

M: Well, that makes sense. Okay. Let me just crawl to a taxi or something.

And that’s how to successfully lure me into a hospital.

{inexplicably but genuinely happy in the red wheelchair -- before drugs or cast!}

The second doctor I visit takes an x-ray which verifies the worst: I am dead. Okay, maybe I don't get the absolute worst diagnosis following an accident, but possibly the second worst: my foot is broken.

"You know what I miss?" I ask Katie and then answer without waiting for her to reply. "I miss the time when rats were our biggest problem."

I continue on to visit a succession of doctors, each one established at a seemingly dirtier hospital than the last. Now, I'm a messy person, a very messy person. The state in which I kept my bedroom during my teenage years still gives my mother nightmares. "I was looking through a pile of papers on your desk, and in the middle of them was a koosh ball!" she'll still exclaim at times, a shock which has not lessened with the years. "You filed a ball in a pile of papers!" My messiness is very possibly my worst trait. But even by my low standards for tidiness, I am shocked by the hospitals' stratum of filth. At the final hospital I visit, I unwillingly heave myself onto an examining table that is covered by a thin green pad. The pad has dried blood, mucus, and other unidentifiable (to me, at least) bodily fluids spattering it. It is a veritable Pollock of pestilence.

One of the doctors comes at me with a long needle filled with some sort of clear fluid. He holds it, the sharp tip pointing heavenward, while walking quickly towards me. I have not seen him, or anyone, unwrap this needle. I am motionless, trapped on the examination table, unable to run away. But my voice still works.

"NO! NEEDLES!!!" I enthusiastically shout.

Katie folds into herself from embarrassment.

But I am glad to have shouted, whatever social mores I have broken. When I return home from my Indian trip, I read on the Internet (paraphrased), "While larger Indian cities boast some of the finest medical facilities in the world, the opposite is true of hospitals found in smaller towns. . . . It is not uncommon for the same needles to be cleaned with water and used for multiple patients."

After my outburst, the doctors quietly take the needle away. I ask if I can wash my foot, since I have just ridden the train two nights in a row without any means of bathing, but they only let me dab at it with a moistened cotton ball.

"Washing it is bad for your health," one of them says.

"That philosophy explains the state of their hospital," I wryly think to myself.

One of the doctors brings out a big plastic bucket filled with something wet and faintly white, a liquid which looks like watered-down milk. He bandages my leg, nearly up to my knee, by winding multiple strips of cotton and plaster of Paris around it. It soon dries in the air, forming a hard white shell. Only the toes, knee, and upper thigh are free.

After this, we visit a pharmacy of sorts, where I will be handed a fistful of opiates. The opiates pose some danger to me, not from risk of addiction but because, coupled with my fast-flowing adrenaline, they act as a wonder drug. I feel good, really good. There's still a pain in my foot, but it just doesn't seem that important.

At the end of the hospital tour, I am driven back to the Shahi Palace Hotel. I climb into the soft, clean bed and begin to rest as per the doctor's orders. I sleep all the way until about noon the next day. After waking and downing a few opiates, I declare to Katie that I feel fine. I want to go out. I want to ride camels.

{beautiful bed for resting at the Shahi Palace Hotel}

"No! Bed rest!" Katie declares, with as much sternness as her gentle nature can muster. She then distracts me by ordering room service. I eat tandoori chicken, deliciously savory from herbs and smoke, and swallow a tall, lumpy glass of lassi. When lunch is finished, I nestle back into my pillows and read several stories from the Mark Twain book I'd brought with me to India. I am so good, a model patient. Then Katie leaves the room to set out laundry and buy more bottled water.

I only have one functioning leg, but a few minutes after she leaves, I blithely use it to spring out the bedroom door like a deranged version of Tigger. I chance to see the hotel owner in the hallway.

"So. . ." I beam at him, radiant with the success of my bedrest escape. "What's there to do in Jaisalmer?"

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Rise and Fall of Melanie Ehler

Katie is asleep and I am only half-awake when I realize the train has come to a stop.

"This is Jodhpur?" I ask a man who was carrying his bags down the aisle. After the man nods in assent, I excitedly repeat, "This is Jodhpur! This is Jodhpur!" The train has arrived an hour earlier than planned. My umbrella, alarm clock, journal, and several items of clothing are scattered about my bunk. All the other passengers with Jodhpur as their destination have already disembarked. Katie, whose bag is already packed, deftly exits the train upon waking. I clutch stuff in both hands and follow her.

I jump quickly from the train, but in the short distance between train and platform, something goes horribly wrong. With a bone-crunching thud, my ankle folds beneath me as I touch down on the platform, causing me to land in a position that only Gumby could comfortably assume. I scream from the pain. To add insult to injury, I have fallen into a moist brown patch that has the texture and smell of sh-t. I begin to cry.

About five or six men gather tightly around me and try pulling me to my feet. It is too painful for me to stand. "Get away from her!" Katie yells. She has not seen me fall. All she sees is that I am sprawled on the ground crying, surrounded by a half dozen strange men who are tugging at me.

"It's okay," I tell her. "They're trying to help."

One man, who wears a large white turban and has a tear-shaped crimson tikka dotting his forehead, takes my injured foot in both his hands and rotates it in a circular motion.

"No-no-no. Stop," I plead. "Please stop." Then in two swift, forceful movements that cause a loud, splintering crack to my foot, he resets the bone. (It is also possible the turbaned man had not reset the bone. Perhaps my foot had only been sprained and he broke it. He didn't exactly show me any medical credentials.) As the bone cracks, I scream, once again, from the pain. There is nothing that compares with this pain, no metaphor that would allow you to understand its intensity.

One of the men who had been helping me brings me a little plastic stool on which to sit. Enough has been done for me. They quickly leave the scene.

The remaining crowd turns predatory. Touts push their rickshaw services on me at double the going rate. A lump on my foot the size of a golf ball appears. Beggars and smudge-faced children run up to me with their hands outstretched. "Go away!" I cry miserably.

Leaning on Katie, I climb up one steep flight of steps and down another. Every other step, I concentrate on not vomiting. The fact that I can walk at all is nothing short of amazing. But here’s a little life truth that only people in bad situations figure out: You are able to do whatever you have to do. I walk up and down those steps with a broken foot because that is my only option. That is the only way out of the train station. Katie helps me into the restroom while the restroom attendants yell at us that we need to pay for the privilege of using it.

The toilet is a hole in an unwashed cement floor. I use the toilet and then change into my only other pair of pants. The lump on my leg is now the size of a baseball. Twilight-hued bruises of purple, blue, and brown begin to bloom across it.

We slowly walk into the main area of the train station and I take a seat. All the area taxi drivers smile as they offer us grossly inflated prices. They see my condition and recognize that helplessness doesn't leave much room for negotiation -- but what they fail to recognize is my strength of stubbornness and Katie's resourcefulness. Katie procures a bag of ice for my foot and calls for a fixed rate taxi from our hotel in Jaisalmer. The hotel taxi may be slightly expensive for India, but it’s still under half the rate the local drivers are trying to push upon us.

The road from Jodhpur to Jaisalmer is roughly paved. I feel every jolt and bump of it inside the car. My right foot, which now has an ostrich-egg-sized lump extending from it, is propped on Katie's lap. I apologize again and again for making her ride uncomfortable. She insists that it’s no big deal, but I half-believe that I am only making up the extent of my injury. The pain's not really that bad, mostly just in my head, I convince myself –- a self-deception that helps me. I focus on the scenery, which is unlike anything I've ever seen. As we drive closer to Jaisalmer, the landscape transforms from a lush emerald green to a bare golden-beige. Once I even see a solitary camel wandering through the sandy plains, either wild or lost from its pack.

We stop at a roadside restaurant in the dry, dusty countryside bordering the Thar Desert. I want to press on directly to the hotel because of my pain, but the driver is insistent that his hungry stomach is a more urgent matter that needs attending.

The people at the restaurant show a very open curiosity towards Katie and me. They stare at us, but without any malice. They talk to us, but without an agenda hedged in self-interest. Their kind presence is a balm to the heart. This is what real Indian people are like, not the greedy, clutching people who shadow us at the tourist locales.

As one of the few English speakers in the area, the restaurant owner proudly stands next to us and makes conversation. He informs us that he is soon going to visit America.

"Oh, how nice. Which city?" I ask.

"Switzerland," he replies.

"That's nice," I tell him.

After we finish our meal, I limp back into the car. It will be a total of over four hours until we reach Jaisalmer.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

R.O.U.S. in India

Buttercup: What about the R.O.U.S.?
Westley: Rodents of Unusual Size? I don't think they exist.
[Immediately, an R.O.U.S. attacks him.]

{a happier moment on the trains}

“Do not be afraid of the rats,” the gentle Indian man in the second class waiting room tells me. “They're just being friendly.”

I look up at the ledge above my head, at the row of tiny, sharp-featured rat faces that fearlessly stare back at me. I see the flash of a thin, straggly rat tail as one of them turns and flees.

“But I don’t want to be their friend,” I reply, with a tinge of panic that causes my voice to rise. I draw both legs under me, crouching at the edge of my seat like an anxious gargoyle.

Katie and I have had only had one small meal all day and were munching on snacks at the train station when I first noticed the movement above us. I freeze in place, marsala potato chip only half in my mouth. I am afraid to finish chewing it. Katie notices my strange behavior and her eyes follow mine. She freezes too. Rats. Quietly, we put our uneaten food back into our backpacks. Let's go to the next room, we whisper, as though we are in a library of rats.

We move to the edge of the adjoining waiting room, which is packed. I am so tired and all the seats are taken. I put my backpack on the floor and slump into it, closing my eyes. Katie sits down the floor beside me. We are only been there a few minutes when Katie jumps to her feet. Some of the rats have come down the wall, scampering around people on the floor and to the doorway that is just a few feet from us.

When the Indian men see that we are afraid of the rats, they laugh. A couple of them kindly offer their seats. It is at this point that one of them tells me the rats want to be my friends. I take the chair, but decline the philosophy.

Katie and I are stuck for hours at the train station, as the "super-fast express train to Jodhpur" (actual title) is running over 5 hours late. Earlier in our trip, when I mention the perpetual lateness of Indian trains, one young man replies, “Ah, well. India is like a little girl. Sometimes she is very bad, but what can you do with her?” The Indian passengers are prepared for late trains. As the shadowy evening darkens into night, more and more people unpack threadbare blankets which they spread across the floor for bedding. They lay across the blankets in piles of families.

For a while, this new room seems safe, so long as we keep watch on the door. Then we notice that the affable rats have moved onto the ledges above the walls in this waiting room. Or else a more undesirable scenario: There are even more rats in this room.

I begin to miss being afraid of cows. Cows! What was I ever thinking to fear cows? Cows bring good things like milk, which, in turn, means ice cream, yogurt, and lassi. Why, cows should have been my BFFs. Rats, on the other hand, bring nothing to the table – except sometimes the plague.

Katie and I gently argue.

"Come to the platform," Katie says while standing in the middle of the room, the place that she feels best enables her to monitor the rats. "There can't be any rats on the platform because there aren't any walls for them to hide in."

"No," I stubbornly insist, though she presents this plea several times. "We don't know that. There might be more out there."

When the staticky intercom finally blares our train's approach, we warily walk onto the platform.

"See?" Katie says triumphantly. "No rats."

I point to the tracks below. There, just before the train's approach, runs a shadowy wave of rats, hundreds of them.

"Oh," Katie says.

Then she says, "When I get back home, I think I'm going to start watching horror movies. They can't have anything on this."

Appreciate Your Life
{train toilet = metal-rimmed hole that empties directly onto the tracks}

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Pantsless at the Taj Mahal

{Front Entrance of the Taj Mahal}

"Do not accept any food or beverages from strangers," Katie translates into French.

In her right hand, she holds the list of train rules the ticket collector had given us to read and sign. In her left, she holds a small cup of Russian vodka that the Frenchmen we'd met 15 minutes earlier had used to toast us.

"Do not leave your bags unattended," she continues down the list.

I glance involuntarily in the direction of our own train compartment, which, though beyond our view, was where we'd carelessly tossed our backpacks.

"Do not tell strangers of your travel plans."

We had both given the Frenchmen the full run down of our remaining itinerary for India. It had seemed like a good conversation filler at the time.

Katie finishes translating the rules for conduct in the train and we all solemnly sign the document saying we read and understood them.

"Was there any rule we haven't broken?" I whisper in an aside to Katie.

"Well, we didn't accept any suspicious packages from strangers," she tentatively replies.

"No, not yet," I agree.

We are riding the night train bound for Agra. Our tickets, the only ones available, are for third class.

Tiny cockroaches, the size of my thumbnail, skitter down the walls of the train, the same walls from which our hard bunk beds extend. The cockroaches do not scare me in the least, chiefly because I am unaware of them. I am rather, shall we say, "unobservant" without my glasses, and Katie makes the infinitely wise decision to not inform me of their existence until after the ride has finished.

It is something of a rough ride at any rate. I begin to understand the train rules and cautions upon waking the next morning. Katie has had her pillow stolen out from under her head while she slept. One of the Frenchman has had his pants stolen in the middle of the night. But how the Frenchman tours the Taj Mahal without pants is his concern. I have my own problems.

{Drawing Competition for School Children}

While still a sophomore in high school, I opened my world history book to a short passage about the Taj Mahal. There was a tiny, grainy photo of it and a few lines about how a heartbroken emperor had built it to honor his dead wife. My teenaged self swooned from the romance of it all. The emperor’s wife had died, but his love for her lived on. Inspired, I wrote a short but very terrible poem about it.

Finally seeing the Taj Mahal in real life is a personal celebration, a sort of secret party for my inner self. I need the perfect outfit to wear for the occasion, but I have only brought two outfits to India. One of my two tops has a boxy shape and boasts a red and pink floral print. The other top is even worse, a blue-and-white striped tent of a shirt, cut into such voluminous proportions that I could use it to smuggle a small elephant across the border were that my intention. Both of these somewhat unflattering tops had been purchased in Korea expressly for their modesty. Visiting the Taj Mahal clearly calls something a bit, well, prettier.

While still in Varanasi, I purchase a new item of clothing, something so bright and beautiful that Katie and I nearly fight over it when we first see it. It has a teal bodice lined with gold and purple ribbons, underneath which flows several filmy layers of magenta-hued cloth. In all good faith, I identify this item of clothing as a dress.

{Looks like a dress . . .}

After further reflection and time spent observing the fashions of India, I have come to the conclusion that this item of clothing is actually a kurtis, or simply a long Indian top. Tragically, I do not reach this realization in a timely manner.

{but it's just a long, fancy top.}

I want to look my very best in all my Taj Mahal photos, so just before disembarking from the train in Agra, I fluff out my curls and don my pretty new top. Thus clad, I happily prance around the world's most famous mausoleum. Without pants.

{Money Shot}

This woman is one of the many people – groups, families, single young men and women – who ask to take photos with me. I try to keep track of how many people ask to take photos with me, but lose count. It's at least 30. One of the world’s wonders is within view, but sometimes visitors turn their cameras opposite the Taj Mahal just to take a photo of me. At the time, I vainly assume it is because I look pretty, or, at least, because I look foreign. Now, I wonder if these strangers are pulling out their photos at parties to laugh over with friends. Hey, Kumar. Look at this! This girl’s not wearing any pants!

{Pantslessness works wonders for making new friends! "No fussy formalities with me" it implies.}

Aside from my questionable attire, the time we spend at the Taj Mahal is lovely. No touts are allowed within its gates, which renders a dreamy peacefulness to the place. The central building of the Taj Mahal is constructed entirely of white marble, though there are floral and geometric designs inlaid with carnelian, sandstone, jasper, and other semi-precious stones. Inspite of being hewn from solid rock, the building looks delicate as a dream. That’s part of its magic.

{Taj Details}

{Side of the Taj Mahal}

Katie and I arrive early in the morning, before there is much of a crowd. We walk around the buildings and into the center of the Taj Mahal where Mumtaz Mahal and later Shah Jahan himself were entombed. (“The emperor’s tomb is not symmetrical. It’s the only part of the whole structure that’s not symmetrical,” the type A part of my personality remarks aloud.) We spend several hours, the entire morning really, lounging about the Taj Mahal.

{Yippee! A pants-free lifestyle!}

After the Taj Mahal, we walk to the Red Fort. More than just a fort, this is the elaborate palace complex where Shah Jahan and a dozen or so wives, including Mumtaz Mahal, spent their daily lives. While not as impressive as the Taj Mahal, it's still a remarkably beautiful place.

{Outside the Red Fort}

When Katie and I arrive at the Red Fort of Agra, there is a group of about 200 uniformed teenage school boys ahead of us. We cut in line. Rather than being upset we haven't waited our proper turn, the boys appear delighted by our sudden appearance in their midst.

{Carrying My Backpack Through the Red Fort}

"Are you a student?" one of the boys asks me. He can't be more than 14.

"NO!" I respond.

"Me neither," he says. "I'm a man. This (putting his arm around a boy who seems about 10 years old) is my son." The 10-year-old looks confused by the rearrangement of their relationship.

"Beautiful!" one of the boys offers to Katie.

"Pretty!" another boy says to me.

The boys try their best pick-up words, but neither Katie nor I respond. It is so, so hard not to laugh.

One of the boys suavely puts his arms around Katie's shoulders. She even more suavely ducks and steps backwards, escaping his tender embrace.

Calling us beautiful and pretty has not worked, so one of the boys is inspired to try out a new word.

"Shexy!" he cries.

This descriptor immediately flares into popularity. Soon the group that is surrounding us, nearly 100 teenage boys, begins chanting: "Shexy, shexy, shexy, shexy!"

Well, of course I'm sexy. I'm not wearing any pants. (Though at the time, I still believe myself to be appropriately attired.) And I can't help but be amused. Involuntarily, a laugh bursts from my lips. One hopeful adolescent takes this as encouragement. Before I realize it, the crowd of boys closes in on me. One of them deftly reaches over and pinches me on the bum. I yell loudly. I yell at them in the tone their mothers would use. I use the same sort of wording I imagine their mothers might use. "You should be ashamed of yourself! That's no way to treat a lady! Blah! Blah! Blah!" Their eyes widen in fear. They scatter and run away.

Katie and I walk through the palace grounds. Here are some of the things we see:

{Women in Sarees and Monks}

{Baby Monkeys}

{Columns Inlaid with Semi-precious Stones}

{Wild Green Bird}

Harboring a deep suspicion of the taxi and rickshaw rates being offered around such a touristy area, Katie and I have forgone their services, choosing instead to walk miles through Agra. Since we don't have a hotel, we carry our backpacks the whole time. We're tired. We're hungry. We have another overnight train to catch, the second one in a row.

"Let's go back to the train station," we tell one another. "It's been a long day. We can eat and relax there."

Boy, were we wrong.