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OK, not really. But let the record show that I’ve been planning my mansion-on-the-Hudson-River wedding long before she showed up. Granted, we’ve chosen opposite sides of the river — I, the Cordts Mansion in Kingston; Chelsea, Astor Courts in Rhinebeck.

I first visited the Cordts Mansion two years ago. I was doing PR for Kingston at the time, and a producer was looking to film some scenes in the Hudson Valley. My boss asked me to drive up to the mansion and talk to the owners about using the property as a filming site. I drove down Delaware Avenue, past houses that had seen better days, and wondered if the mansion was in as much disrepair as its neighbors.

It wasn’t. It was beautiful. The house was in great condition and the grounds were well-maintained. The view of the Hudson River through the trees was breathtaking. I couldn’t believe that I lived only a few miles from this my whole life and never knew it existed.

via OldHouses.com

Dear poor sucker who will someday marry me, I hope you like this view. In the least crazy way possible, I have had my sights set on this mansion for two years. Cordts is now under contract, so here’s hoping the new owners won’t trip up my wedding plans.

Anyway, back to Chelsea. Through Facebook friends still upstate, the local newspaper (though, sadly, a lot of potentially awesome local coverage has been supplemented by AP reports) and People.com, I’ve been able to follow the events up in Rhinebeck. Last night, Bill and Hillary made an appearance at the Beekman Arms, America’s oldest inn and one of the best Sunday brunch spots in the Hudson Valley. (Try the bananas foster. Seriously.)

It’s been weird to watch the coverage from afar and to know that all this commotion is going on where I grew up. Rhinebeck was where my childhood best friend lived and where the county fair was held. It’s the town I drive through on my way to get to my grandmother’s house. Now, suddenly, it’s on the tip of everyone’s tongue.

River Road in Rhinebeck -- Astor Courts is just down the road

If nothing else, I hope this provides a necessary jump-start to Rhinebeck’s economy. For such a small town, Rhinebeck’s got a lot to offer. My best bets if you’re not celeb-watching this weekend: take in a movie at Upstate Films, browse the selection at Oblong Books or enjoy a chocolate-covered fortune cookie at Millhouse Panda.

A view of Rhinebeck's main drag in the winter. Somehow, this is the only photo of the town I have saved on my computer. Out of the shot on the right is the town's only stoplight.

This morning, I noticed I was about to hit Inbox 1000. That’s just too much. If every other aspect of my life is in freefall, the least I can do is reign in my e-mails. Deleting, archiving, responding, etc. I’m now down to Inbox 379 and hoping to get to 100 before noon. I was on a roll until I hit e-mail #295, sent from my college mentor just prior to graduation. Ken, who was the associate director of College Park Scholars, was known for sending out funny, engaging e-mails that were on par with his funny, engaging personality. When he passed away suddenly last year, I didn’t just lose a mentor — I lost a friend. I don’t know why today happened to be the day I found the graduation e-mail, but it was perfect timing. Funemployment is the most misnamed thing in the world, and it has been a struggle to keep my spirits up. If it’s been that way for you recently, read his e-mail, especially the last few paragraphs. It certainly made my day better.

Subject line: One more e-mail before you graduate

Body: … of course, that’s not to say that I won’t be bothering you with an occasional email after you graduate.  Anyway, there are a few things I can almost always count on when graduation rolls around.  First, some of you will invariably ask about the Media freshmen (“Are they as good as we were?”).  Second, I can always count on seeing lots of you in Cumberland in the weeks just prior to graduation as you come by to get your Scholars medallions (without a doubt, something I look forward to the most during May).  And, finally, I can count on one of you to ask if I’ll be sending out one more email with some final words or some advice.
I thought I was going to escape that last one this year, but somebody stopped by Cumberland just this morning, asked about the current group of freshmen (“Are they as
cool as we were?”), picked up her medallion, and then asked about the farewell email (she will remain anonymous so that nobody will attack her for prompting me to write this).  Seriously, folks, I don’t know that I’m somebody people ought to be taking much advice from, but I guess I can say a few things.
Before I get started though, let me just say that this promises to be somewhat sappy and nostalgic, and perhaps even a bit avuncular (yep, I took the SAT’s at one point in my life, too).  Oh, and as I’m sure you all anticipated, it’s not going to be short.  So, if you’re not in the mood for that type of stuff, you can stop reading now, delete this email, and continue with your life knowing that I wish you the best.
Okay, for those of you who actually stuck around, I’ll continue.  As I’ve told many of you before, this time of year is always bittersweet for me.  Of course, I’m incredibly proud of everything you’ve been able to accomplish so far, and I’m in awe of the potential I see in each of you.  However, it’s always a bit sad to reflect upon the fact that you’re leaving the university after what seemed, to me, such a brief period of time.
That being said, you’ve accomplished a great deal in the short time you were here, and I have no doubt that you are all going to accomplish even greater things in your future.  You are an incredibly bright, charismatic, talented, and fun group of individuals, and I consider myself fortunate to have met you and to have known you in the time that you’ve been at Maryland.
I love my job.  I enjoy the work that I do, I get to work with some incredible people (uh, that would be you folks), and on a daily basis, in working with students such as all of you, I get to see tangible evidence showing the value of the work that we do in Scholars.   Sometimes it’s kind of difficult to believe that I get paid to do this (and yes, I’m certain that many of you find it amazing that the university pays me to do what I do).
That last paragraph actually has a point (yes, folks, occasionally there are “points” to be found in my email) — it sort of serves as a transition into the advice portion of this email.  Again, I don’t know that I’m in a position to offer you advice, but here goes.  My first suggestion concerns money:  don’t take a job just for the money.  I made more money in my first post-college job than I ever imagined I would, and I absolutely hated the job.  I actually knew that I wasn’t particularly interested in the job itself before I accepted it, but I thought the money was too good to turn down.  I couldn’t have been more wrong — it wasn’t worth the money, it was hell, it was absolutely the worst year of my life.  While it was nice to have lots of disposable income, I was too miserable to really take advantage of it.  Find something you enjoy doing rather than focusing on something simply because you’ll make lots of money.
I guess the only other piece of advice I have would be this:  don’t let others define success for you.  Ultimately, success is self-determined.  If you’re happy where you are in life, and happy with who you are, does it really matter if you don’t fall within the parameters of somebody else’s subjective definition of success?  Don’t worry so much about what others feel you need to do in order to succeed.  Figure it out for yourself and work toward achieving goals that you feel are going to lead to whatever it is that you define as success.
Okay, so I think that’s all I’ve got.  It truly has been a pleasure getting to know you, and I sincerely hope to hear from you later.  Good luck and take care!  (Oh, and if you happen to have a dollar on you the next time I see you, I would be more than happy to accept it as a donation toward the charity softball tournament … it’s for the kids, after all.)

-k-

I was eager to escape Varanasi’s heat and dive into the belly of India — Delhi. Everyone I met along the way loathed Delhi. “It’s dirty, it’s hot, it’s really just awful.” I hadn’t heard even one good review of the city. Suffice it to say, my expectations were low.

My train ride from Varanasi to Delhi dropped my expectations even further. I was sold a bad ticket at the booking office in Agra, and instead of getting a spot on a sleeper, I was waitlisted and made to stand on a platform between cars while the conductor tried to find me a spare bed. I ended up in the bunk closest to the bathroom, which is basically the last place you ever want to be on an overnight sleeper train. Instead of dwelling, I popped my malaria pills, plowed through my copy of Three Cups of Tea and drifted off to a dream-filled sleep. (Malaria pills FTW.)

The train arrived in Delhi late the next morning. To be frank, I don’t know what all of my friends were complaining about. Delhi was no more overwhelming than any other city I had been in. It was dirty, sure, but come on — this is India. I grabbed a rickshaw and headed into Pahar Ganj, Delhi’s tourist mecca, to search for a cheap guesthouse.

I only had a few days in Delhi, done on purpose because I had heard such terrible things about the city. I figured three days was enough time to see the government buildings, visit the residences where Mohandas and Indira Gandhi were assassinated and do some last-minute shopping before catching my flight home.

But first, the requisite coffee shop laze to wait out the heat of the day. Cafes in India, particularly ones that serve as non-profits and contribute to a humanitarian cause, are awesome places to meet other travelers, bounce around stories and find new friends. I’ve met more solo travelers sipping coffee in these kinds of places than I have anywhere else, which explains how I met Lukas, a student from Prague who also had a few days to kill in Delhi before heading back to my beloved Česká Republika.

Lukas and I met up later that day to do some more sightseeing. We started at the North Block, an impressive set of buildings built during the colonial period. Because the block was designed by a British architect, the buildings have the look of London infused with Indian detailing.

Near the government buildings stands the India Gate, a memorial built to honor the memories of the 90,000 British Indian Army soldiers who died fighting under the Union Jack. We walked around, made the acquaintance of a young Indian guy who then followed us for the next hour and managed to get kicked out of the Supreme Court. (To be fair, don’t let us in if you’re only going to tell us we have to leave.)

Lukas had heard about an evening sound and light show at the city’s Old Fort and figured I’d be interested as well. We got to the fort just as the spectacle began. The hour-long show was a nice way to see one of Delhi’s major tourist attractions in an innovative way, far from the day’s crowds and heat.

The sheer size of the fort is what first got me, but once we were inside, the beauty of the gates, towers, tombs and mosques blew me away. Despite being half a millenia old, much of the Old Fort is still intact, and not in an about-to-fall-apart sort of way. India’s earliest architects were bomb at doing their job, I’ll say that for sure.

The next day, I invited Lukas along with me to see the residences of Mohandas and Indira Gandhi (who were, to eliminate confusion, not related). I’ve been to the grassy Knoll in Dallas and I’ve traced Yitzak Rabin’s last steps in Tel Aviv, but there was something so eerie about both Gandhi homes. The Mahatma and Indira, they weren’t going anywhere to give speeches. There were no parades or mass gatherings or thousands of witnesses. These were their homes. Can you imagine not even being safe in your own home? Though to be fair, I can’t imagine being an international political figure, either. Having seen so much of India over the previous six weeks, the assassination sites were a fitting finale to my trip.

Lukas and I parted ways when we got back to Pahar Ganj. I had the rest of the afternoon to shop, pack and ready myself for the long trip home.

So, Varanasi. Yes, it’s been weeks since I was there, but memories of the city (and its stifling heat) are still fresh in my mind.

Mimsie and I parted ways at the train station in Agra, but not before a fight against the masses to get our tickets. Even after a month traveling around the country, I was surprised by the number of people absolutely everywhere. In India, there is no such thing as personal space. It just doesn’t exist in a place with a population exceeding 1 billion. Just getting our tickets involved standing in a packed women-only line, being shoved and jostled as the line slowly inched forward. A soldier in the room noticed us, the two white, bewildered girls in a room of sweaty, yelling people and ushered us to the front of the line. We bought our tickets, though truthfully, nobody would have noticed either way — the trains were so packed that something as simple as checking tickets would have been absolutely impossible. Mims and I had a rushed goodbye before we ran to our respective trains. I pushed my way onto a packed train and leaned against my rucksack for support. I whipped out my camera and took what ended up being my last photo in India. (Dead battery. Lost charger down south. Sad story.)

Once in Gwalior, I connected to my Varanasi-bound train. Fifteen hours later, I was in Varanasi — tired, sweaty and overwhelmed — but in Varanasi. I checked into a guesthouse on the banks of the Ganges River and went out exploring.

Here’s the thing they tell you about India in June: It’s hot. Here’s the thing they don’t tell you about India in June: It’s so hot you’ll want to sit under a cold shower every waking moment. It’s so hot that because you can’t do that, you will alternate between taking a shower and sprawling out in front of the air conditioner (provided the power hasn’t cut out for the millionth time that day). And when all else fails, you will find a coffee shop, order a cold drink to try and keep your body temperature down and wait for the hottest hours to pass. That’s the thing about Varanasi. From 10 a.m. to  5 p.m., the city is at a standstill. Shops are closed, streets are deserted and rickshaw drivers nap in the shade. There is nothing to do but wait and shower, wait and shower, down a bottle of chilled water before it hits room temperature, wait and shower, wait and shower until 5 p.m. rolls around.

Once the sun starts the set, the city comes alive again. It’s like an Indian Brigadoon (OK, Melissa, stop being so dramatic.) It really is cool, though. Crowds gather by the ghats along the river. Some ghats are for bathing, others for doing laundry, some for swimming and one for burning corpses. Bet ya didn’t see that one coming, eh? The Ganges is the holiest river in India, and being cremated at the Manikarnika Ghat ensures that your soul will continue on to liberation instead of continuing the cycle of reincarnation.

The best way to see the ghats is by taking a boat up the river either at sunrise or sunset. On my last evening in Varanasi, I hired a guy to take me from Assi Ghat, where my guesthouse was, to Godolia, one of the main shopping areas. The whole ride took about 45 minutes and took me past half a dozen ghats.

(I apologize for the fuzziness -- my Blackberry hasn't got the best camera on it.)

Toward the end of the ride...what a difference a few minutes can make!

I put my Blackberry down as we paddled past the burning ghat. It was hard to wrap my mind around the idea that I was seeing actual bodies –real people– being burned and their ashes scattered into the water. While there is an obvious sadness to it, there was the more comforting thought that these people had achieved enlightenment, every Hindu’s ultimate goal.

After I stepped off the boat in Godolia, I wandered around the market, bought dozens of bangles and rejected the advances of half a dozen teenage boys before sitting down to enjoy one final dinner in Varanasi.

With Mimsie in the hospital, I was left to my own devices in Agra. To be honest, for being one of the most touristy cities in the country as well as the home of the Taj Mahal, Agra was pretty dumpy. I spent a few days wandering around different parts of the city, exploring the markets and sidestreets. Unfortunately, Agra is the sort of place you day trip to, or maybe the place you travel to for an overnight. Agra is not a place to spend five days. But the gods (all three million of them, because this is India after all) had the last word, and so I had plenty of time to get acquainted with the city.

When I wasn’t curled up in bed, cursing the E.coli that was sucker-punching me in the gut, I was walking through the markets and enjoying the air-conditioned coffee shop across town. I even managed to find a nearby movie theater that was playing Raajneeti, one of the biggest political thrillers of the year. Was it all in Hindi? Yes. Did I care? No. I could stare at Arjun Rampal all day:

We planned to leave Agra that Sunday, the day after Mimsie was released from the hospital, which meant that we had no choice but to see the Taj Mahal that morning. And by morning, I mean early morning. Biggest lesson learned in India: If you want to be a tourist, make sure your excursion will be over by 9 a.m. or face potential heat stroke. (By the way, the current temperature in Agra is 48 Celsius, or 128 Fahrenheit.)

And then…the Taj Mahal, the world’s most recognizable monument to love. Built 350 years ago by the emperor Shah Jahan to honor his second (and favorite) wife, Mumtaz Mahal, the Taj is perfect. It’s just perfect. Everything down to the smallest stone is symmetrical. There was thought put into each measurement within the mausoleum’s complex. Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal are buried in a crypt below the inner chamber. Though the crypt cannot be accessed by visitors, mock tombs have been constructed on the main level of the Taj to give people an idea of what is below.

You can't see it in this photo, but behind the 11 spires on top of the gate are 11 more -- 22 in total, representing the number of years it took to build the Taj Mahal. When you stand directly in the center of the Taj Mahal, all 22 are visible.

Because June is so hot, summer is generally considered to be the off-season in Agra (and the rest of the country). But in India, not even the extreme heat can chase away tourists. By 9 a.m., queues had already formed to take photos in front of some of the more popular sites, such as the Princess Diana bench (which, by the way, I found out later that our tour guide lied to us about. This is the fake Princess Diana bench — the real one is on the other side of the reflecting pool behind me.).

I might have run up to the bench crying, "I want to take a Princess Diana picture!" (And so I did.)

Mimsie hired a tour guide to show us around the complex. Normally, I hate doing this. On top of paying $15 to enter the grounds (Indian citizens pay about a dollar), we were also going to pay someone to show us around? Yes, I’m cheap. It ended up being worth it in the end — our guide was very informative and knew all the right photo angles:

Thoughts on my Indian attire? Turns out, the salwar that I'm wearing is so much lighter than anything I could get at home. Now I understand how Indians deal with the heat so well!

I have friends who have been to India several times and never visited the Taj Mahal. Go. Go go go. The Taj Mahal is legitimately one of the most stunning things I have ever seen. Once your eyes lock on it, you never want to turn away. It is the definition of love and perfection. I didn’t have a bucket list before I went to India, but if I did, this would have been on it.

We left the Taj Mahal just before 10 a.m. The crowds had already formed en masse and Mims and I, both in need of popping our next Cipro pills, were near collapse. We headed out the East Gate, wove through the backstreets of Agra and made it back to our guesthouse before the sun’s strongest rays hit.

[Still to come: Varanasi and Delhi]

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