"Mr. Oko, Welcome Back!" That was the sign greeting me as I climbed down from the train at Haridwar, the holy Indian city where the Ganges meets the plains. The trip was a detour from the usual direct run to Dharchula, in order to drop off gear with my rafting buddies in Rishikesh. Specifically, hiking boots and polypro longjohns for the guys at Red Chilli Adventures, who sent along the car and the cute sign.

We spent the past two days in lovely Laxman Jhula, the northern exurb of Rishikesh, about 20 miles up the road from Haridwar. The yoga/meditation scene is heavy here in north Rishikesh. While most tourists have embarked for warm points South, long-term India visitors remain camped along the holy Ganges, a green ribbon flowing down from the Himalayas at this juncture. Evening winds ring the temple bells, and though monkeys and stray dogs ply the streets for dropped snacks, occasionally snarling at one and other or passersby, the vibe remains relaxed and curiously devout as the town is a destination for pilgrims of all stripes.

It's been nice to get a breath of fresh air after Delhi.

Yesterday, we wandered the slender alleys, window shopping and ate lunch on a primitive rooftop cafe; in the evening we caught up with my guide friends at their pad in the paddy fields outside of town and ate a scrumptious North Indian meal of kofta (vegetable balls) in a spicy tomato sauce and mashed okra. Served on the side were warm roti, flatbread, kept soft with a light coating of ghee, clarified butter. We sat late into the evening talking about politics, film, love and the environment, the conversation winding down about midnight. On our way home, C. and I stopped to admire the stars, and while picking out constellations were treated to a streaking meteor.

We slept peacefully with the wind sweeping down from the mountains, carrying the sound of the Ganges through the cracked window above our door. Now, C. must return to work in Dharchula, a two-day journey from here. We've been informed that our rooms have been prepared, and I'm hoping that it all goes smooth on the journey. In just a couple of hours, we'll leave the peaceful clime of Rishikesh behind for an overnight train, and trade the quietude for the rough beauty of upper Kumaon, where we'll be for the next few weeks.

We're still adjusting to being back in India; without a doubt this brief Rishikesh sojourn has helped, though the hard part remains ahead. With 6 months to burn, however, I am cooking up plans a plenty, and look as forward to laying new tracks as revisiting the old.


Even a veteran traveler to India gets schooled sometimes. Yesterday, that was me.

With Christina in meetings through the morning, I was assigned the task of arranging train tickets for our trip to Dharchula. Things got off to a lurching start, as I could not find a rickshaw willing to make the half-mile journey from the YMCA to the station. "It is closed," I was told. "Government holiday." Give me a break. "Use the tourist center down this alley." No thanks. "I am not going to the railway." Well, I am. "First, talk to my friend." No thanks. "You owe me ten rupees." Take it, take it and leave me alone.

So I trundled along on foot, fending off the touts, walking to the station in the hazy morning air. Confident that the tickets would be no problem, I headed up the filthy stairs in the depot, and into the International Tourist Bureau, a place I have spent many hours over many trips arranging train travel in and out of Delhi. (To read about past adventures check the blogs at http://danoko.blogspot.com and http://danoko2.blogspot.com.)

Ah, yes, the snaking que, the sound of confused travelers sorting out which trains are available. Seats for Goa and Bombay, choice Southern destinations, will be hard to come by -- heading North to the mountains looks to be no problem. But shortly (by Indian standards, at least) I get my comeuppance.

After an hour, I approach the ticket counter. The chubby Sikh raises his eyebrows. "Encashment certificate?" he queries, needing proof that I did not purchase my rupees on the black market. Alas, C. has the ATM receipts, and I humbly submit that "my wife" has them, and is at a meeting, and has trusted me simply to arrange the tickets. The supervisor I'm informed, however, must now approve the transaction, while across the bottom of my ticket request the clerk writes: "Research visa."

For some reason, I take this as a good sign. After all, we're here as guests of the Indian government. Guess again, boyo!

As I protest my case, hoping that I can curry a sign of sympathy, I am informed that whatever past events have transpired, I am not a tourist. The fact that this has never mattered before makes no difference, and the hour I have wasted is worth less than fly spit. "You must listen," the supervisor says, "you are here for research, you cannot use this office." Yes, but.... "Relax, the tickets are available, you just have to go downstairs, do not cross the street, and go to the white hall on your left, three buildings down."

Certainly, the hall is no ring of hell, but it defines limbo. The thousand or so men lined up before some 15 ticket windows wait in orderly fashion, and they obey the 'no smoking' signs. One man suggests that as a foreigner I might want to check the International Tourist Bureau. I'm left to explain that I don't count. I'm an Indian, I laugh, wishing I were a lady, so I could hop onto the much shorter ladies line. Instead, I carefully choose a fast-looking que, when without warning our ticket seller up and disappears for a quarter-hour.

Eight men stand between me and freedom, while I wait. And wait some more.

Another hour later, I have my tickets in hand, and find a rickshaw driver willing to brave the construction-strewn Connaught Place and drop me back at the YMCA. The coming train journey will take me only a half-hour more than my assigned chore. For the rest of the day, no one mentions the government holiday.


We arrived the night before last in Delhi. Today, is Sonya Gandhi's birthday. The old city feels familiar, the morning fog lifting by noon to reveal a less than blue sky and lemon yellow sun; at night, the smell of wood fires mix with the scent of camphor used to clean the floors of our hotel. Connaught Place, the center of New Delhi, constructed by the British, is a riot of construction as work continues on the city's new subway lines. Through it all, hungry touts wait for innocent tourists.

A contact at USEFI admitted yesterday that some minor bureaucratic monkey business might explain the delay in our visas. Apparently, some employed by the Ministry of Home affairs have "unofficially" decided that the United State's glacial pace in granting visas to foreigners should not go unanswered; as a result, Americans awaiting visas to India should be prepared for a little bureaucratic quid pro quo. What a pain!

Given that we're staying at the YMCA, perhaps I shouldn't be surprised, but Delhi seems to be getting into a full Christmas swing. There's Santa's Sleigh on the patch of grass outside the reception area at the Y, and Muzak versions of your favorite carols playing in the dining room. Shops are strung with tinsel and wrapping paper is for sale all over the place. I have no idea what Brahma would make of this, but it's certainly a contrast to what I expected.

Before long, we'll be heading out to the Dharchula and the Himalayas. As always, there are more impressions than can rightfully be recounted at this moment. Instead, I offer my last published Texas adventure, courtesy of Texas Parks and Wildlife magazine: http://tpwmagazine.com/archive/2004/dec/threedays/.