Shmoozing with Shashi (20060227)

Despite my unabashed disgust with how Inda treats its budget tourists, and its 20-something female tourists, the friendliness of certain people has been beyond reproach. Of those amazing few lifesavers, nobody has been as eager to discuss daily life more than Shashi Parihar. For one thing, the Parihar's have been friendly and welcoming to the point of making both my Financial and Menu Adviser and I feel ashamed for our prior criticism. At one point, several monkeys from the palace above the Haveli Parihar guesthouse descended to the level of us humans. They routinely stalked the open-courtyard areas of the havelis for food and other edible things to steal, like flip-flops. Well warned about the furry little buggers, I held on to my morning pomegranate one day with a Stalinesque paranoia. I set it down subconsciously to pick up a knife and I felt the table shudder a bit. Did I hit it? It didn't feel like I hit it. None of which mattered - some red-assed, pink-faced simian swooped down and stole my breakfast! Before the I could even finish thinking the sentence, "Ape shall not kill Ape," Shashi's mother had rushed out of the kitchen, brandishing chapatis. Flinging the frisbees at the thieving primate - not me, the monkey - and then running up the stairs at the same time, she retrieved my breakfast with the tiniest of bite marks in it, and excised the contaminated portion. If that's not dedication to a guest's happiness, I don't know what is. Besides, with all the paniful stomach issues I'd been having of late, I doubted it could get any worse. Okay, so the Parihars were Breakfast Superheroes; big deal, you say. Shashi and the FMA got along like dhal and rice, though the FMA would play up her own shyness in the friendship if you asked her. The night before we left, Shashi brought out her wedding sari to dress up the FMA. Shashi is not married, nor does she have a boyfriend that her parents know about, but that hasn't stopped them from purchasing her wedding outfit way in advance. That's how deep the "modern" arranged marriage urges run. An unmarried adult woman is considered to be about as useful to society as a three-legged stray dog. The FMA is not the type to even try to politely refuse a gift, so although Indian clothes aren't her thing, she enthusiastically allowed Shashi to do her make-up and properly arrange the red and gold sari. It was quite a sight, seeing the FMA transformed from her grubby traveller's clothes into a veritable Indian bride, peering seductively over the top of her veil. I thought about mentioning the virtues of Purdah, then decided that was the kind of comment nobody present would find particularly funny and could end up with me in the hospital. The Parihar's position as owners of a reasonably successful guesthouse was unique among all those I'd stayed at and heard of, being run not only by a woman but an extremely young one at that. Five years ago, their second daughter, 17-year-old Shashi, graduated from high school. She was, by her own words, educated, and very proud of that fact. That's no joke in tradtionalist Rajasthan, where women who have finished any kind of schooling are about as common as rain. So her family was in dire financial straits, with Papa Parihar and all the other males unemployed. Her sister, older by three or four years, had already been married off. A grand total of zero propects were on the horizon, and they were in danger of losing their house. With much arguing and debating, Shashi told the FMA and I, she convinced her mother first and much later, her father, to convert the family home into a guesthouse. The business is hers, and although her brother helps with much of the soliciting of customers, the responsiblities and final say belong to her. Vivacious and friendly, open-minded and always quick with one of her bright-eyed big smiles, Shashi has made her family prosperous once again. Her sister and her two kids now live back at home and help with the running of the haveli, following her husband's death and horrible mistreatment by his family. After Shashi's brother-in-law died, his revolting family made her sister, Meenu, sit at home wearing white and mourn his passing for the rest of his life. She wasn't allowed out of the house and they had taken over the raising of her children. Shashi staged an intervention of sorts, swooping in one day when the in-laws were gone and rescuing Meenu. Meenu, now 27, is finally finishing high school. I've read half a dozen news stories of women being treated horribly in India, and specifically widows being forced onto their husband's funeral pyres or worse. I guess Meenu was lucky that her in-laws were from a lesser level of hell than other people's, but just thinking about being locked up under house arrest like that gives me chills. So Shashi had two big victories under belt. She'd not only saved her family, but her sister's sanity, as well. As disappointed as the FMA and I were to learn that her dad was still too old-fashioned to let her marry a man of her choosing, neither of us was particularly shocked. In a small town like this, and probably still in larger cities, too, it seemed that no matter how many battles a woman had won, she still had to conform to the roles of mother, housewife and servant. Her father wants her to be married into some other man's family, to go and live with them and fulfill her societal role as an Indian woman. No matter how much Shashi had done for her kin and for him - and she loves her father as much as any daughter ever has - she says she feels obligated to obey him. But not yet, and not if her plans to marry her secret boyfriend are successful.

Bats, Monkeys and a Little Baksheesh (20060226)

I give up. Rajasthani germs win. I'm sick, again. This time, it's some kind of searing gut pain that makes me lose my footing with each attack. I was sparring once in a tournament, and took a kick to the leg that made me nauseous; this is worse. There's no nausea, but a fire that feels like my stomach is burning itself out from the inside, like melting celluloid. Later I would get some medical advice and take stomach acid-dampening pills, but until then I would bear the dilapidated elegance of the Bundi Palace on a wobbly cross. Bodily malfunctions aside, and without a scintilla of doubt, visiting the palace here has been one of the very best things I've seen in all of India. Everything from the top of the domes to the manicured gardens swelled with an overwhelming crumbling beauty; the infestations of sleeping bats and rambunctious monkeys added a touch of creepiness, mammalian caretakers that have abandoned their charge. The enormous hill the palace sits on is the centerpiece of the town, towering over it to the south just as the forts in Jodhpur and Jaisalmer demand eyeballs, a constant visual reference that you have to turn your back on to avoid. The sprawling palatial estate lies about one-quarter of the way up the hill, up a series of nearly 90 degree switchback turns designed to slow down invaders that got past the gate. The path continues to the top of the hill, where far above lies Taragarh, the Star Fort. Built in the 14th century, the fort sits on the hilltop, but virtually invisible from the ground except for its wall. The palace was built later, in the 16th and 17th centuries, and is layered like steps. Inside, too, the design was layered, an ancient game of Jenga stopped halfway through, ripped from a child's imagination of a fevered castle in the sky. The white marble has faded to a mottled gray, brown and white mix, but the majesty of it can't be understated. This was what I expected all the other Indian palaces I saw to look like; my own dreams made real. Detailed black marble carvings of elephants topped the columns in several rooms, with an impressive four pachyderms topping each pillar and more than two dozen per room. Other columns were topped by a white marble ceiling, and then another layer of columns topped by a cupola. Then that cupola was topped by a cupola, a layer cake of architectural sugar. There were more columns, some more Italianate than traditional in design, others textbook Rajput. It wasn't all dirty marble and carvings, though. Everywhere you looked through the three floors that were open to the public, chunks of wall had fallen over, the marble had dints and there was evidence that the current palace residents weren't exactly human. Not only famous for its architecture, the Bundi palace is also famous for its animal residents. Clouds of bats stream out at night, flocks of sparrows roost there, and there were more monkeys there than in both Bush White Houses combined. And then there are the ghosts. Supposedly, the place is haunted. Nobody is sure by whom, or what, but the lack of window shutters creates a nightly howling as the wind passes through, hitting ominous low notes and the occasional high as a monkey screech joins the choir. My Financial and Menu Adviser even awoke one night to the tallow-colored streetlights flickering in time with the ghostly despair coming from above. When I then suggested that the bats might be vampiric and feed on the monkeys that lived with them, the only advice she gave was to smack me in the arm. The little treasures of the palace continued to fascinate, a hidden treasure laying out in the open. This was probably because we were two of maybe six or seven tourists in the place, and very often couldn't see or hear the others. That kind of seclusion alone was worth double the entry cost. Along with the marble, darkened by corrosion and time, there were the murals. Intially, they weren't particularly impressive. By no means were they boring; in fact, it was quite interesting to be able to get so close to them. There was a sign in English and Hindi advising against touching them, but that was it. The lack of plexiglass protection made them more accessible literally, of course, but in an artistic sense as well. You could go right up and see the how the sun had struck the paint at the same angle for hundreds of years, or marvel at the amazing detail made with tiny brush strokes. It was all there, naked and pure. When we got to the last room open to public, something happened that we'd been anticipating since hearing about it from other travellers: The curator, one of maybe three people taking care of the place, approached us. We'd last seen him as we entered, and he asked if we'd like to see some "secret rooms." Sure, we said. One-hundred rupees, he said. Now, on the face of it, 100 rupees is not a huge amount. It converts to about US$2.50, give or take a few cents. But when you consider that getting into the palace was only 50 or 70 rupees for each of us, then 100 becomes an outrageous price. We talked him down to 30 rupees, and he said he'd show us two rooms for that price. More than an hour later, two rooms became three additional floors, up staircases with holes in them and past monkey infestations, looming over 30-meter drops and showing us things that hopefully, someday, will be open to the general public. It was the best baksheesh we'd spent in all of India. The murals were of incredible detail, the common elephants but also scenes from Hindu myths and the daily lives of the average person. Some were damaged, but many were in immaculate condition, on the underside of ceilings and on walls that had been protected by their placement from the elements. The curator said nothing when I turned on my camera's flash, feeling guilty as I did: stealing shots that weren't mine to take. The tour was so extensive and impressive that we gave him a 20-rupee tip. Double-checking some of my facts for this write-up on the web, I came across a pefect Rudyad Kipling quote, and he described the Bundi palace better than I could: as "the work of goblins, rather than of men." With all its ethereal charm, the only evil here would be in never seeing it in the first place.

Shopping with Shashi (20060224)

The best budget places to stay in Rajasthan have been the paying guesthouses. Besides treating their customers as human, instead of preambulating cash dispensers, the owners of these establishments have been invariably friendly to a fault and occasionally have offered up unique perks. Like shopping trips. I woke around noon from a dull, dreamless sleep that did little to wipe away my exhaustion. My Financial and Menu Adviser was in even worse shape, but when the owner of Haveli Parihar guesthouse invited us to go with her to the local bazaar, we both perked right up. The full entourage was large enough to fill two auto-rickshaws. In addition to myself and the FMA, there was Shashi, the 23-year-old guesthouse owner; her older sister, Meenu; Meenu's three-year-old son; and Mandy, another guest of the Parihar's. The Bundi bazaar was a quintessential small-town Indian market. Unlike in the bigger cities, where entire blocks have been dedicated to a pile of shops all selling similar products, like paper, into what amounts to a paper shopping district, the smaller markets are far more random. Spices, fabrics, vegetables jewelry and a thick mob of people are heaped into a kinetic jumble . Even in this largish-small town of 100,000 people, it was hard to tell whether there was some greater choreography at hand. For all I know, I may have been the only person who noticed this, but that afternoon was a particularly pungent one. As our rickshaws passed by one of the towns old water tanks, the repulsive, greasy diesel mixed with the sun-warmed organic decay and fermenting algae in the water. It would be a portent for the rest of the day. Each of the shops we visited seemed to have its own associated aromas, even if the store itself was sterile and the smell was coming in from the outside. The bangles shop that Shashi took us to first impressed the FMA by charging her the "local" price, not easy to come by for a foreigner and at least 50 percent cheaper. Handmade resin bangles, though, aren't really my thing: the concept of jewelry strikes me as a phenomenal waste of money. But I did notice in that tile-and-glass coated shop, with the hollow tinkle of the bracelets and the low thump of boxes being laid on the glass, the most enticing smells were those coming in from the street. Sweetened tangs from fruit vendors down the block and bovine sweat from the feral cows covered up the rickshaw exhaust fumes that I couldn't detect but knew must be there, somewhere in the scented layers, because their two- and four-stroke engines kept buzzing by. The fabric shop was up next. We sat cross-legged on the floor, meditating on cloth and cash. This one nice, but too expensive; that one was cheap and looked it, and so on. I kept one bored eye on the excitement outside, and the owners pulled out sample after sample of cottons and silks and blends of the two. The fabric quality felt fine to my fingertips, although I know only marginally more about textiles than I do about jewelry. When the first sample was presented, all I could smell came from outside. The shop lacked a front door, instead having an open space where the front wall usually is. As the pile of samples on the floor increased, a certain mustiness began to present itself, like a shy girl at a party. Maybe it was the combination of afternoon heat and mindless disengagement, or maybe over-exhaustion from the long night before had burned out my frontal lobe, but the boredom was so intense it became exciting. The soft breeze from each new offering pushed enough energy at me to force my attention and grunt some kind of acknowledgment that I couldn't remember two minutes later. Slowly, I'd drift towards the patterns of passing people and mopeds, animals and rickshaws outside. I think we even might've purchased something. We moved on, driven by the frenetic engine that was Shashi. More than anyone else I'd met so far in India, she loved her hometown. She may have actually hated it, too, for all I know. Regardless, as we moved out of the fabric store and into the outdoor vegetable market, I could practically bottle and sell the adoration she felt for Bundi, that compassionate love one feels for their hometown, cherishing its beauty and ignoring its tragedies. We hunted through the greenery for ice cream. We found Shashi's favorite ice cream shop, which served moderately tasty commercial stuff, but we weren't there for the food. In the mid-afternoon heat, it made for a great way to cool down. Isn't that what ice cream is all about, anyway? I was asked to take some photos of Shashi, having a camera on-hand. As I shot them, I learned that some Indians don't like to smile for portraits. Maybe it's a northern India thing, since I remembered quite a few random people showing big toothy grins for my lens in the south. Jaisalmer, too, although not Nawalgarh. Maybe it's a small-town thing. Not smiling reminded me of the Japanese tradition of prefering to not show teeth in public. Being asked to take a photo of a group of unsmiling Indians was just as contradictory as the boring anticipation I felt in the fabric store. Shashi, who has a photogenic smile that would put any Bollywood star to shame with her white teeth contrasting beautifully against her caramel skin, stared at my lens like it was the barrel of a gun. There's a reason it's called "shooting," but I've not often experienced being requested to shoot and ostensibly loathed, simultaneously. Our little band of valiant shoppers continued on after cooling off. Never before had retail therapy for exhaustion cost so little. We picked up some steel trunks for the Parihars to store their clothes in, which were preferable to dressers because they locked out the heat and humidity better, and were cheaper. Then Shashi hired a rickshaw to take the trunks home, and we followed 20 minutes later. The group bought some fruit and veggies, and the FMA and I picked up some snacks for ourselves. Somehow, I think we also managed to get some gifts for people back home, but I clearly wasn't there mentally when this happened. Besides Shashi's obvious affection for the town, the friendliness and familiarity of everybody we encountered made a great impression. Bundi was the largest of the small Indian towns we'd visited so far, but somehow it had retained all the best qualities of the towns one-quarter its size while remaining far more charming than places 40 times bigger.

How Not to Get to Bundi (20060223-24)

India's stereotypical reputation as a breeding ground for serene gurus is well-deserved. Like no other place I've been to or read about, the sub-continent excels at teaching patience. Although you may think it's all quaint camel-drawn carts and James Bondesque flying rickshaws, let me set you straight: it ain't. Scarily, the flying rickshaws turned out to be more than 20-year-old chase-scene fantasies. When my Financial and Menu Adviser was sick in Jaipur at the beginning of the month, I had to call a doctor to our hotel room. As she was treated over the next few days at his clinic, we met two young women whose rickshaw in Jodhpur had somersaulted through the air. They said it hadn't hit anything, or at least, they couldn't remember it hitting anything; it just spontaneously flipped. The driver was apparently some long-lost cousin of Evil Kneivel, because he emerged from the wreck with little more than cuts and bruises. The ladies fared far worse. One had dislocated her ankle, an injury I didn't think was actually possible. I'm not human physiology expert, but there's not a lot of room in the skin at the bottom of the leg for the ankle to dislocate into. The other woman's knee was so damaged she was on cruches and off to see a surgeon the last time I saw her. Frankly, if I ever needed major, long-term roadwork done on my body in the middle of a trip, I'd go home. Maybe that's just me. Flying rickshaws and other frightening vehicular disasters aside, getting from Udaipur to Bundi doesn't look like it could ever be an easy commute, unless you've got the money to hire a private cab. Situated on a fairly straight road about 150 km south of Jaipur, Bundi doesn't look like a hard slog from Rajasthan's capital and biggest transit hub. From Udaipur, though, it's about 200 km east, on a windy path that looks benign, but bumps up and down a series of hills and valleys and switchbacks. One hundred fifty, 200, even 250 km doesn't sound like much; it's 1.6 km to the mile, for you folks Stateside. But given the deplorable conditions on non-major Indian roads, and even some major ones, with potholes that get measured with a yardstick and crumbling shoulders that look like broken chocolate icing, not to mention drivers who all act like they're trying to qualify for the Indy 500, 200 km feels a lot more like 2000. Losing your bus ticket less than 30 minutes before departing doesn't help matters, either. It was a bit of a surprise, the way that a frying pan to the back of the skull is surprising. I assumed that the bus would be leaving from the main bus stand, so we went there, only to learn that the tickets had jumped my pocket at some point in the past few days. Nothing else from that pocket, like my passport or notebook, was missing. The tickets were gone. With them, on the back of them, I later learned, were the directions on where to meet the bus. It sure wasn't at the central bus stand, I can tell you that. The hotel we stayed at, which sold us tickets and didn't tell us to look at the map on the opposite side, happened to also save our behinds. We called them up, and they rushed down to the bus station and whisked us over to the proper pck-up point. Just as we stepped past the driver into the cabin the bus lurched forward and the engine roared. Indian sleeper buses are interesting coffins, I mean, contraptions. The reclining chairs have adequate ceilings if you're sitting, but you can't stand in front of a seat as you could in a Greyhound. The low ceilings are the floors of the beds above. But if you paid for a bed, you only get a bed, and no seat. The ceilings above the beds are adequate for small children and adults with osteoperosis to sit upright. The FMA and I, however, do not have any kind of diminishing bone disease. The ride was uncomfortable. The beds weren't particularly clean, and were in fact dirtier than the foam pigstys we slept on taking the sleeper bus from Jaipur to Jaisalmer. The beds weren't really beds this time, either, not even sleeper train-style beds. They were foam slabs narrower and shorter than a twin-size mattress, with a ratty curtain hanging in front to create a facade of privacy. That government-run sleeper bus to Jaisalmer was pristine compared to this rattletrap. This one's bedbugs even had their own pleat-skirted cheering squads, and it looked like they were voting for president of the student council that night. On top of all the filth and challenges we faced getting to the damn bus, when the FMA asked if we could put our small-human-sized framepacks in the trunk at our next stop, the ticket collector refused. Furious, she came back to our bed, justifiably planning homicidal retaliation. Off I went, equally angry, to try and talk some sense to the ticket man. "Talk some sense" here can also be interpreted as "throw his stinking carcass out the window at 120 kmh." When the bed is barely large enough for a short adult, and clearly too small for two normal-sized people and their backpacks, plus that we travelling on a private bus, and not one beholden to a government timetable, the frustration level burned through the gauge and began ramping up into anger. Luckily for all parties involved, the ticket man was simply being a misogynistic moron and acquiesced with a minimal of prodding. Our bags went under at the next stop, and the rest of the ride to Bundi was unpleasant, but not more so than any other nighttime commute across India. We arrived in Bundi at five in the morning, got whisked by auto-rickshaw to our guesthouse. Familiar with the bus schedule, the owners just gave us a room key and we passed out.

The Great Cow Race and the Maharaja’s Make-Out Room (20060220-23)

There are many great things to see in Udaipur, or so I've been told. I was not impressed with the City Palace, where disastrous planning stuck more than two dozen useful information boards on the history of the palace, the efforts made to restore it, the history of the city and a recap of traditional Rajasthani culture at the end of the tour in a poorly marked side room. Neither was I particularly taken with the pretty Lake Palace, an expensive hotel and restaurant which sits in the middle of the city's manmade lake, Pichola. The sunset views from the Monsoon Palace, atop a small mountain visible from the city, were indeed beautiful, but overwhelmingly so. No, I was most impressed by the cows. Huge, lumbering Brahmin cows bolting up the narrow streets and hills of Udaipur at full sprint, galloping into the evening sun. That, and a bit of painted nudity. Walking around the Lakeside District, the major guesthouse and backpacker hotel area of The Big U, it's hard not to miss the signs catering to budget travellers. I saw at least six different way of spelling "Rooftop Cafe," "We have Ruftop Restrant" and "Live Nude Dancers." Okay, I'm kidding about the dancers. But every building within spitting distance of the City Palace seems to have converted its terrace into a restaurant serving food that's probably poisonous and the floors between there and ground-level into a hotel that serves its roaches better than its human customers. Not only that, but many of them serve up old movies with their stale rice. The Financial and Menu Adviser and I were able to watch American Beauty and Octopussy simultaneously. AB had Mandarin subtitles, which should clue you in to the origin of that DVD, and the James Bond flick was being shown because parts were filmed at the Lake Palace.) Playing on two different roofs for two different sets of diners at two different "restaurants," we were able to join in simply by changing the focus of our eyes. I don't recommend this at home, by the way. Kevin Spacey's head on Maud Adams' body makes for terrible nightmares. Homely aesthetics aside, Lakeside was kind of nice. A series of rolling hills, each with its own degree of incline, created pathways that started off wide and narrowed to little more than the breadth of a pencil. Turn one way and discover a burning pile of cow shit and garbage. Turn the other, walk five steps and you run smack into the middle of a haveli. Before I forget, the Bagore-ki-Haveli was hands-down the best thing about Udaipur. Beautifully restored, not to perfection and as it was originally, but enough so that each room felt "lived in" and its purpose shone through. The women's bedrooms felt like women's bedrooms; the men's like mens. The kitchen was utterly recognizable as a kitchen, and so on. Also, we picked up on a brief note at the end of a write-up about the haveli having hidden erotic frescos, reputedly nothing to compare to the erotic temples of Khajuraho, but still a big no-no in Rajasthan. With a bit of searching, we found them, hidden in a small room with space for cushions and not much else. Maybe it was the maharaja's make-out room, but if you're there and looking for them, they were in the room at the far end of the second floor. Once you go into the room, close the doors behind you and pray that your camera has a strong flash, because there was very little natural light available. Also, just beyond the haveli's archway were a series of ghats - steps - leading to the lake. Ever since missing out on the well-known dhobi ghats of Bombay, where hundreds of washer-people wash the clothes of their neighbors, I'd been somewhat obsessed with watching the washing. And just beyond the havelis doors, there was honest-to-goodness clothes scrubbing going on, every day. The scope, of course, was nothing like the pictures I've seen of Bombay's dhobi ghats. But five or six women washing beats out none. Visually, the most fascinating part of the process was when they took a long-handled wooden paddle and, having placed the item being washed against the stone steps, beat the heck out of it. Then it gets soaked in water, turned over, and beaten again. Buttons get regularly lost, although I've been lucky so far, and over time the fabric tends to thin a bit. Surprisingly, though, to someone like myself or the FMA who've grown up on washing machines, the clothes do come back cleaner. These women cleaning clothes scrub, rinse, squeeze and beat clothes all day long, no matter the heat. I can't imagine they get paid much, either. India is where goods might be expensive, but people are definitely cheap. Not only was the Bagore-ki-Haveli great for showing details of haveli life that were lacking at the far more expensive City Palace, not only was there a slice of Real Indian Life on just beyond its walls, but it featured, every night, an affordable Rajasthani cultural show. Mostly dancing - fire dancing, dancing on broken glass, dancing with nine jugs of water on your head - no, I'm not kidding - there was also a brief and weird marionette show where the puppets trade heads. Porn, dangerous dancing and marionettes exchanging body parts: The Bagore-ki-Haveli had it all, even a rooftop restaurant. The night after getting cultured at the haveli, the FMA and I were walking back to our hotel after going out to get better, non-rooftop food. We actually found a thali restaurant, although it took more than 20 minutes to get there. And I spilled water all over myself after accidentally knocking the wobbly table, thus finally giving the locals an actual reason to stare at me. Thanks to my quick-dry synthetic clothes, though, I was dry before dinner was done. Walking back, we heard a rumbling. The FMA checked the sky for clouds, and I looked around, thinking maybe it was a large truck. We jumped behind a parked car just in time to avoid a charging herd of cows. Six or so of the Brahmin beasties, probably feral, with a bull in the lead, a couple of females and even a large calf, were racing full steam ahead uphill. I'd never seen a cow run in India before, and they all looked out for blood. Maybe they'd just been branded, but before we could get our cameras out, they turned a corner and were gone. There were no cars behind them, no screaming shop owners or housewives finally fed up with all the cow manure everywhere. We chalked it up to one of those "only in India" incidents and continued home. The next night, out looking for postcards and chocolate, the same thing happened. A strange rumbling followed by a rocketing herd of bovines. Fortunately, this was our second encounter with the cows, so we didn't loose our cool and run through the streets, screaming. But this was as weird as the head-switching puppets. In the end, the unusual events in Udaipur were the best things that happened to us there. Without them, it would've been a bland city best suited for those with money to burn - not lowly backpackers.

A Secret Garden in the Blue City (20060219)

The Pink City of Jaipur was clearly not pink. If anything, the buildings of its old city were painted a faint salmonesque color, hard to distinguish from white in the glare of the desert. The Blue City of Jodhpur, on the other hand, was as blue as a robin's egg. The old city there looked like something Picasso might have done had he written a fantasy novel, the square-edged rectangular houses stretching vertically, all the shade of a late morning sky. Like a cult of blue monks, the old city houses surround on three sides a massive 150-meter-tall hill that is the foundation for Mehrangarh. Visually, it's just another notch on the bedpost of impressive and yet unique architectural achievments in Rajasthan. The Jaisalmer fort was impressive because of its coloring and that it was as much a part of the vibrant city that circled it. Mehrangarh's merits lie more toward the historical, although it kept a secret that my Financial and Menu Adviser and I were lucky to uncover. I'll get to that later, because the fort was very much worth visiting. We weren't expecting much, cynical bastards that we are. Though we'd been impressed with Jaisalmer, Jaipur just didn't do anything for us. Most forts and palaces that we'd seen there had been poorly kept or poorly labelled. Though it was clear that this was the case with the Mehrangarh Fort and Palace until the last decade or two, when the trust established to maintain it finally kicked into gear, now it has become the fort-museum that other historical complexes in Rajasthan should aspire to become. When you walk up to the main gate, or "rock up" as the Aussies say, you get slapped with a pleasant Rs. 250 (US$5) entry fee. Pricey for India, but not surprising in touristy Rajasthan. The difference here, the change that made it all worthwhile, was that it included a digital audio tour, the kind that you hang around your neck and press a button depending on the number of the colored circle in front of you. Sometimes these audio tours are crap, but this one - which the managers of Mehrangarh are more than happy to remind you - was the only digital audio tour in all of Rajasthan. It's probably one of the few in the country, if there are any others. The tour discussed palace life, defense of the fort, construction of the complex. Weapons and military maneuvers were talked about in fascinating detail, separately, and then art and less violent matters. It was a tour that liberal arts colleges would love to describe as "well-rounded," that well-used phrase of theirs with the horrible imagery. You'd think they'd say "Rubenesque" instead, but I'm digressing. Somebody famous, Rudyard Kipling, I think, likened standing atop Mehrangarh to looking down from Mt. Olympus; voices drift skyward and reverberate off the palace and fort walls: Eavesdropping made easy. Delusions of grandeur aside, the fort and palace were as impressive as the audio tour. Multiple courtyards concealed a multitude of architectural expressions: marble lattice in varying patterns, but consistent thickness and quality; towering parapets and sharp turns - practical defensive design; balanced beauty depicted through asymmetrical carvings; wide-open spaces that were still utterly enclosed. Ironically, much of the most beautiful work was in the women's courtyard. Belief that women needed to be protected from men's lustful gazes, and that royal women needed to be protected even more so because of their blue blood, forced them into seclusion. This severing from the outside world resulted in the most detailed and intricately designed spaces for them to "enjoy" life from. This phenomenal audio tour, available only to non-Indian tourists, allowed us to use the VIP toilet, which meant a cleanish bathroom with a Western (sit-down) commode with toilet paper provided free of charge. Ah, civilization was rampant that day. The fort was great; the tour equally so. Neither could hold a candle to what we discovered beforehand, though. Our guesthouse, the excellent Jaswant Bhavan, was located in the old city. The main entrance to the fort could be accessed from two directions; so instead of wasting money on a rickshaw to the front of the main entrance, the owner suggested we walk up from the back. As we climbed higher and higher on the switchbacked path, we saw the blue of the old city deepen further. Higher still, and a classical Indian water tank, enclosed by a wall and attached to the palace complex but still lower than the main fort, became apparent. In front of us, on the path, was a space that was being used as a garage for mopeds. Mopeds, en route to a centuries-old fort: Very strange, I thought. And just to the left of the tank, hints of green obscured by yet another wall. Green in this sea of blue and old yellow stones was enough to pique my interest. The FMA, ever offering sound counsel, didn't want to leave the safety of the solid path. I saw a narrow route past a small house - with air conditioning, of all things - and vouch-safed for it by not falling over the edge. The FMA followed, reluctantly. We walked along the path, old sandstone worn smooth, and the earlier faint hints of green suddenly launched themselves into a full bloom. Just to our left and more than 20 meters down was a garden. A lush expanse of grass - no kidding, thick grass like the kind that we hadn't seen since the parks in Melbourne - and flowers, and palms and something below the moped garage that looked a lot like a three-story-tall facade to a Rajasthani palace, princely digs done in miniature. The wall we were on varied in width from one and a half to three meters, and encircled the garden like a lover. Off to the right and outside the wall was the aforementioned tank, and just past the wall, spreading throughout the thin valley and down to the left, were the blue buildings of the old city. The view was impressive, barely a cloud in the sky, and the dark blue above became the pure reflection of the imperfections below. We walked further along the wall, carefully managing stairs, eyes widening more and more at this unencumbered view of the city, not another soul in sight. Occasionally, the blue cubes below were interrupted by a red sari flapping wide as it dried in the breeze, or a yellow roof door left ajar at just the right angle to catch a glimpse of it. The path turned back now toward the palace, forming the last side of a squarish rectangle as it descended towards the garden. We saw some young men, gardeners judging from the green stains on their pant legs, having a thali lunch underneath one of the thick trees. Walking back, thrilled at the seclusion and unwilling to socialize with anybody except ourselves at this point, we noticed not only was the garden filled with a painter's palette of flowers, reds and yellows mostly, but they were arranged into strict rectangles with sharp corners. It looked Mughal from the pattern, not having seen a famed Mughal garden but familiar enough with the description to assume. After we had spent nearly three hours examining the gardens and the walls surrounding them in peace and solitude, we left and bought our tickets to the fort. The audio tour included a map of the place, and saw that the wall surrounding those mysterious gardens was marked, but not the gardens themselves. I showed the map to the woman handing them out and asked about it. "Oh," she said, "That's the museum's [the fort's] curator's house." "That palace? He lives there?" "Yes," and she smiled enthusiastically. "And the gardens next to it," I asked, waving my hand off behind me, worried that she might be misinterpreting my question. But there was no confusion. "Those are his gardens," she said, her Indian accent giving the English a rare musical lilt. "He built them." I thanked her, and we walked up the steep ramp through the fort. She didn't make it clear whether the gardens were a part of the palace that had once existed, and now live again, or whether they were just something that the museum curator-who-lives-in-a-mini-palace did in his free time. But man, what a job.

Go West, Young Paco (20060215-16)

The biggest concern when it comes to camel safaris has to be the stink. Camels are simply not known for being the "after" candidates in deodorant ads. Shocking, I know, but there it is: the dromedary has repugnently horrendous odoriferous emanations. Yet, camel stink just wasn't a big factor on our particular desert camel trek. Maybe I just got used to the stench of my humpbacked steed; I called him Paco. Paco and I had an understanding. He - and all the camels you see used for shlepping anything from people to pots to vegetables are always he, because the she-camels are larger and prone to driving their male counterparts into hormonal rages that end in what can only be described as the camel with four humps. Anyway, as I was saying: Paco. See, he was a bit young for the safari life, and the youngish camel doing the safari-tourist thing must be lead. The other four tourists on the trek, including my very own Financial and Menu Adviser, were able to guide their own camels with their own reins. I, on the other hand, was forced to have one of the guides actively lead Paco by walking in front of him and pulling his reins. Paco not being able to control his raging teenage camel-hormones around the female of his species also meant that he had these burning urges to sprint headlong into nothingness. After about 30 minutes of being led by the nose, so to speak, I tried to bribe Paco's handler to go take a betel nut break. Whether the language barrier was too high or he was the only rural Indian who didn't like betel nuts, I'll never know. He didn't budge, and so Paco and I trudged on. Well, Paco trudged, I just kind of sat there baking. You get the idea. Slowly, we trudged into past the brown desert scrub towards the sand dunes north of the town of Sam. There were five of us doing the Lawrence of Western India thing: Stu, the Canadian; Tim and Mel, a British couple; and the FMA and I. Stu was wacky. There's really no other adjective to describe the guy. Wacky. He had a digital video camera with a separate lens component that look like military or spy hardware, strapped to a headband. The recording part of the camera was stuck on his belt. With his longish red hair and head-mounted camera, he looked a bit like Richard Simmons gone Borg. While odd, and certainly a cause for much speculation amongst the locals we enountered, this did not make him particularly wacky - like nitroglycerin missing a key component. When we stopped, though, the wackiness shone through like an explosion watched through a kaleidoscope. He wouldn't walk around normally, recording whatever his head had turned towards. Instead, he would bob and weave, long, thin, pale white arms spead out for balance, crouching low, raising up high, like a crane fighting a dragon or a cross between Muhammed Ali and a do-it-yourself documentary on how to shoot extreme sports. Wacky. Stu was friendly, too, a nice guy with a genuine interest in what went on around him, but whack-a-mole wackarifically wacky. He'll probably win an Oscar someday. Tim and Mel, on the other hand, were the antithesis of Stu. A clean-cut London couple that actually would wind up getting engaged during our night out on the dunes, they provided a perfect balance to Stu's optimistic, explorative bob-and-weave. Pleasant to talk to, willing to share the more embarrassing moments of their trip as eagerly as the exciting, frustrating or horrific ones, it was nice to meet another couple who'd enjoyed India, but did not under any circumstances think that it was some kind of mysterious magical wonderland. So there were the five of us, and me bringing up the rear on Paco. We stopped for lunch and to avoid travelling during the hottest part of the day under some scrubby trees on the edges of of the dunes. The guides helped us dismount, with much gronking and chortling from the camels, and then they cooked us an authentic desert meal.: rice, chapatis, dhal, and some kind of desert vegetable, curried. It was not exactly a vastly different cuilinary experience from the previous month. Interestingly, they used very little water when cleaning the dishes. Sand was the soap du jour, and resolved the issue of waste quite nicely, simply absorbing anything left over for the desert insects and birds to consume. As we packed up and moved on, the dung beetles that infested the sands moved on the remains given to their ilk like large black maggots. From the larger mammals, cattle, sheep and goats, to the occasional bird and the ubiquitous dung beetle and other insects, the desert boiled with a curious stew of creatures. People, too, infested the scorching, scrubby plains and shifting dunes, and as the camels and our guides slowly plugged along into the four o'clock sun, we came upon a lone tree with red strings tied all over its branches: a Hindu cemetery, said one of the guides. Soon after, I saw a village spread out on the horizon, but much closer was a group of cisterns and wells being used by a group of desert Indians. We dismounted again to get water for the camels, so I went over to the locals. Chattering amongst themselves, but ignoring me, they pulled water up from 70 meters below the surface of the sand. When the rope reached the top, I was surprised to see it wasn't attached to a bucket. Even cheap injection-molded plastic buckets are found all over India. Instead, a large piece of leather was tied to the rope at its four corners, and it looked like it held a frightfully small quantity of water for the effort required for hauling it skywards. Over and over again, the ball-shaped leather was hoisted and its contents dumped into containers, into hands, onto heads. For a place that measured its rain not in even single-digit centimeters but in years, as in, "We haven't had any measurable rain in two years," they seemed absurdly wasteful of such a precious commodity. But I'm an outsider in India, and even more so in this desert country that's thousands of kilometers from humid Kerala: what the heck do I know? After an hour or so of more camelling and we were closing in again on the dunes, I could see a hut approaching. I asked the head guide about it, whose name I sadly forgot to write down. (HG is what I'll call him; if it was good enough for Wells, it'll be good enough for camel trek leaders.) An unfinished ovoid structure made of sticks woven together, sealed against the threat of flooding with dried dung, and surrounded by brambles and thorny dead brush to discourage foraging mammals, the hut was his. HG was humble in explaining why he needed this home-away-from-home in the middle of the desert, saying only that it would be good during the monsoons of June and July. So we dismounted a third time, not at the behest of our guides but because we were intrigued by this house. HG was kind enough to grant us permission to look inside, which on the face of it doesn't sound very exciting. Certainly, the guides all thought we were a couple of bad teeth short of a camel. But surrounded by a landscape that alternated between flat brown scrub and imposing yellow dune, where the biggest concern was keeping the camels in line - except for obedient Paco on his leash - and a notable dearth of broadband Internet, well, the hut was it for entertainment. The FMA described it as "cable TV for the desert." Ten millenia of developing human culture, and in that moment it all came down to a shack of sticks and shit from a design that probably pre-dated recorded history. The hut was empty, of course. I'll ignore the obvious metaphor here to point out that the inside of the hut was about 10 degrees cooler than outside. However strange it might seem to have a home in the middle of nothing, protecting against rains that come less and less often and might never return, you can't argue with its effectiveness. Pleased that we had taken an interest in his hut, but also quite over the fact that we were standing in the middle of a work in progress, HG urged us on. Perched back on Paco, yet not quite as sore in the ass as I was expecting to be from the bouncing camelback, we plodded into the dunes. The sun fell further in the sky, and Tim and Mel took photos from atop their camels of our elongated shadows as they stretched across the sand. Restricted to the top of his camel, as well, Stu's bob-and-weave videography was limited to the cadence of his carrier. Before we knew it, we'd reached the center of the dunes. Or at least, it looked like the center. From the top of a nearby dune, only on the edge of the horizon did the sine wave of sand flatten into infinity. Dismounting for the last time, the FMA and I walked out, up and away from where the guides were unsaddling our rides. The sand in India is much the same as the same stuff in Israel or in Arizona: it's hot and it always, always, always finds a way to get into your ears. Confronted by such enormous, overwhelming repetition that, somehow, isn't repetitive, like watching snowflakes through a microscope with one eye and naked with the other, we parked our sore butts and legs on the sand and waited for the sun to set. Good sunsets in India have been hard to come by for us, as elusive as a good spicy Northern curry. The best food I've had so far in Rajasthan was in Nawalgarh, where it was cooked fresh by Ramesh's wife. Five days of excellent, tasty stuff versus weeks of bland and potentially lethal crapola. Heck, I'm even taking antibiotics now of the requisite bout of Traveller's Diarrhea. Lovely stuff. Back to food and sunsets. The number of times that the FMA and I have set out for a good Rajasthani or Delhi meal and been pleased with the results are not numerous, and that parallels our sunset experiences with sunsets, too. Down in Kanyakumari, the sunset was a cloudy bust. So was the one we planned on seeing in Fort Cochin, where the thin, weak strands of color barely raised their ostrich heads out of the haze. Unintentional sunset sighting has proven to be more rewarding. The hellish bus ride to Thanjavur gave us a melting mass of reds and golds. The cruise to Allepey presented to us, practically on a platter, with a chance to see the tantalizing silhouettes of palms backed by a lush tomatoesque color fade to blackened silence. The sunset we saw from the slowly cooling dunes was sadly not much to speak of. The pollution from Pakistan floats eastward, and without a strong rain - yes, that damned non-existant rain again - the sun turns an angry red and then drops out of sight far above the vanishing point. Fortunately, riding in at full gallop on her black camel is my old friend Frau Shadenfreude, who pointed out that while my sunset sucked, the large group of day-tripping tourists over there on the other dune definitely did not get their money's worth. I pointed this out to the FMA, and she recommended going to celebrate with beer. For you medical experts, beer and ciprofloxacin do not mix well, but surprisingly nothing bad happened, no bad symptoms followed. Which makes me question the purity of my Indian-bought medication or the alcohol content of Kingfisher, but that's for another time. After dinner, but before the beer was gone, we were interrupted by one of the guides. The moon was rising. The FMA and I clambered up the dune to be greeted by a big fiery ball of white. Already past the horizon, the valleys and mountains on the moon's surface were still fairly visible to the naked eye, and I wished for a camera tripod. Next trip, I guess. When confronted with such amazing displays of natural wonder, the dunes being almost as clear in the moonlit dark as they were four hours earlier, it's hard to not feel simultaneously humbled and exhilarated. It's impressive what we're capable of, as a unified people, as individuals. To imagine the enormity of the universe and at the same time to want to throw your body, head-first, down a sandy hill as Stu did earlier today, filled with love for the ability to do so and the thing itself, was a sense that I hope guides the rest of this trip. The next day, though, was about as spectacular as the previous day's sunset. In other words, not really all that. There's only so much desert scrub and sand dunes one can appreciate before your begin to think about whether that irritation in your ear is a mosquito or even more sand. Thankfully, though I was upgraded to Paco 2.0, an older camel than yesterday's version that I was able to lead on my very own. It was like graduating kindergarten. And just like back in kindergarten, it didn't take me long to find myself getting chastised by the teacher, I mean, guides. One guide told me not to kick in my heels to get P2 to speed up, it upsets their stomachs. Camel welfare, however, did not interfere with the same guide hauling back his arm and repeatedly beating another camel in the neck with his fist, when the beast misbehaved. I thought about pointing out this irony to the guide, but decorum and a severe language barrier got the better of me. Who knows? Maybe the camel likes getting punched in the throat. The village of Sam, a collection of a dozen huts and three times that number in piles of trash on the ground, was unremarkable. I did find a photogenic boy and his blue radio to shoot some pictures of, which made it somewhat worthwhile. The well we visited at the end of the trek was interesting for all the women meeting there to collect water in steel jugs that they would balance on their heads. We weren't allowed to approached them or ask questions from across the well, but even at four in the afternoon it was damn hot to be carrying steel jugs anywhere. All I could take away from the camel safari, besides another interesting yet not fantastic thing I've done in India, was a reminder of the very Zen value translated in 1990s parlance: It's the experience, stupid.

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