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India for first-time visitors

"Cow. Mustard plant. Dead body," our taxi driver said as we drove into town. Wait, what was that last one? It was a woman's body, small and wrapped in shiny red cloth, being carried by hand on a pallet down the main street into town.
Image: Children play in the Yamuna River behind the Taj Mahal,
Children play in the Yamuna River behind the Taj Mahal, in the northern Indian city of Agra. The Taj Mahal was constructed from 1632 to 1654 by Shah Jahan for his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. Rajesh Kumar Singh / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

"Cow. Mustard plant. Dead body," our taxi driver said as we drove into town.

Wait, what was that last one?

It was a woman's body, small and wrapped in shiny red cloth, being carried by hand on a pallet down the main street into town.

For thousands of years, Hindus and Buddhists have come here to end their lives — or renew them — in the river Ganges. Dying in this ancient city brings "moksha," or spiritual liberation to Hindus. The living cleanse their spirits by washing in the waters that run down from Himalayan snow peaks.

That tradition draws a never-ending human current of pilgrims, beginning in pre-dawn darkness each morning. From every street and intersection, blurry shapes amble toward the riverside steps, called ghats. The walk is quiet, except for the pilgrims' drums, chants, and tambourines.

The ritual also draws boatloads of tourists. First-time visitors like us typically include the Ganges in a triangle of destinations — along with the Taj Mahal and the temples of Khajuraho, known for erotic carvings — in India's history-rich northeast. But while almost every step in India offers some kind of intense experience, nothing was as riveting as that morning along the water in Varanasi.

After walking to the ghat, my wife Miranda and I were rowed along the river, with all the other tourists. The bathers with their skinny legs and baggy drawers lined the shore steps.

"The water is very clean, very clean," said our cheerful guide Ajay Singh, scooping up a handful to drink and press against his face.

A few oar-strokes later, we passed the floating carcass of a goat — a ritual sacrifice and another reminder that Varanasi's ancient traditions fly in the face of modern rules of sanitation and public health.

Upriver and downriver, cremation fires burned continuously. Hundreds are cremated each day. Those who can afford it are burned in pyres of banyan wood that weigh close to 800 pounds (360 kilograms) each. For the less wealthy, there is an electric crematorium. The government has outlawed the old practice of dumping bodies directly into the river.

The never-ending funeral takes center stage at Varanasi, but walk 20 yards past the burning pyre and you're quickly lost in the bustle of merchants, customers, cows, and schoolchildren squeezing through the narrow shop lanes.

In India, even the most everyday details can be jarring to a Westerner. A downtown store takes the religious honor accorded cows to a new level. A huge bull lies lazily in the middle of a pashmina shop, as customers on either side peer at the displays.

A short drive from Varanasi is Sarnath, where Buddha — The Buddha — preached his first sermon in the sixth century B.C. The brick ruins of Buddha's temple look out over the stupa, a 100-foot (30-meter) high circle of dark stone. From Varanasi, it is a short flight to the village of Khajuraho, known for sandstone temples filled with erotically explicit statues.

Many of the central carvings around the temples show sex acts, including one that would require an extremely strong left leg. One theory is that the erotic carvings were made to demonstrate the Kama Sutra to the illiterate. The best time to walk around the temples is late afternoon, when softer light hits the sandstone. It may be a contradiction, but the collection of sexually charged statues was probably the most peaceful and calming place we visited in India.

Khajuraho is small, but the riverside town of Orchha is smaller. We went there to get away from the big cities and see some of the countryside along the way to the Taj Mahal.

We hired a car to take us on the four-hour journey there. The road runs through vast, empty fields of yellow-flowered mustard seed plants. In these rural stretches, plenty of people still use centuries-old farming traditions like burning cow manure as fuel. Often, the cow pies are stacked in neat concentric circles resembling stubby brown Christmas trees.

In Orchha, we stayed in a hotel tucked underneath the ruins of a temple. We decided to skip an actual room and opted instead for a large, two-room tent in the shadow of one of the temples. It's not for everyone, but I enjoyed sacking out inside cloth walls, listening to the night noises of India. My wife? Not so much. Too many dogs fighting, she said.

After Orchha, we set out for the biggest tourist attraction of India: the Taj Mahal in Agra.

Foolishly, we thought we had learned enough Hindi/Urdu to navigate our way onto the train to Agra. By that point, we had learned "shukria" (thank you), "chelo chelo," (go away) and "nahin" (no).

So when our tour company sent a guide as well as a driver to put us on the train, we started feeling like we had more hangers-on than Britney Spears. Then we actually entered the confusing jumble of the station, and ended up clinging to our minder like helpless children. He patiently walked us to the platform and got us into our car.

Maybe we could have eventually figured out where to go, but I definitely liked having the help. In our case, we used a company called MacNair Travel. As a couple traveling alone in India, the tour company arranged a lot of hand-holding, but frankly we needed it. We were not college kids bumming our way down the road, and there are lots of things a Westerner, even a veteran traveler, probably shouldn't try in India — like driving. But more on that later.

The Taj Mahal is a Mughal emperor's monument of love to his favorite wife. For his trouble, he was imprisoned in a nearby fort by his son. Today, a major threat to the mausoleum is pollution, so you cannot drive close to it, and visitors must either walk, rickshaw, or take an electric car the final mile.

Once there, you put on light disposable slippers to walk around the giant marble tomb. Early morning visits are the least crowded, but realistically, there's always a crowd.

Crowded does not begin to describe Delhi. The city's crazy traffic will astound American drivers — even those accustomed to maneuvering cars on L.A.'s freeways or in New York's rush hour. Lanes and lines here mean nothing. A "safe distance between vehicles" in Delhi can be measured with a thumb and forefinger.

And then there's the honking.

It took me a while to translate, but Indian horns are completely different from U.S. horns.

In New York City, for example, a horn blast usually means: "Yo! These cars aren't moving. I hate this. YO!"

Here's what a honk means in India: "Ah, hello. I'm about two inches from you, so if you jiggle the wheel even slightly we'll both edged up knocked into that rickshaw carrying a family of seven, the man pedaling 22 crates of live chickens, and a cow. Thanks much!"

Because honking, in India, is more about saying where you are going than where you've stopped, one of the quietest places in Delhi is standstill traffic. Then, as soon as the rickshaws, wheelbarrows, trucks, and pedestrians start moving, the bleating begins again.

But for sheer pandemonium, nothing beats the Delhi airport. The sidewalk was a massive crush of hundreds, perhaps thousands of people and their luggage, pressing just to get into the building. Once inside, there are about five separate lines to work through, none of them marked, and none of them happy.

Leaving India, as it turned out, required another adjustment in cultural mores.

We slipped a worker a $10 bill to get bumped ahead in line. (Our hotel refused U.S. currency due to the decline in its value, but bribery is apparently still a dollar-friendly transaction in India.) A fellow-traveler told us to say we were flying business class (we weren't), and then slip the young man some money along the way. That flew us to the top of one line. But don't expect a greased palm to part the sea; it still took two hours to get to the gate, and we only just made our flight.