Asia | India | Rajasthan – Grim up north
I actually wrote an entry about getting from Hampi to Goa on the train, and veging out on Palolem beach for two days while staying in a hut where a hen came in two mornings in a row and laid an egg on my bed; it was a pretty funny entry, but I wrote it in Khajuraho and then the power went out. The guy who runs the cafe said he’d mail it must have slipped his mind. Palolem is beautiful, and there are dolphins in the bay.
From Goa I took the Rajdhani Express to Kota, in Rajasthan. The Rajdhani is the most expensive train in India, because it’s unbelievably fast and they supply all your meals, which are excellent, and bring you free drinking water. It seemed like a splurge, but it got me halfway across the country overnight and cost US$40. The only drawback was the American couple in the next compartment with the sort of loud, braying American accent that makes me wish I were from somewhere else:
‘SO WE WERE FLYING OUT OF CALCUTTA AND I LOOKED DOWN AND SAID TO BARB, ‘HEY BARB, YOU KNOW, EVERTYHING DOWN THERE IS CHAOS, UTTER CHAOS, BUT IT *WORKS* SOMEHOW!’ DIDN’T I BARB? ‘IT’S TOTALLY UNORGANIZED BUT IT STILL MAKES SENSE, YOU KNOW WHAT IT MEAN!?”
and so on.
Kota was my introduction to Rajasthan, and Rajasthan is different. I went to the pay toilet at the train station, and the attendant tried to charge me five rupees. Then he tried to charge me three, but one of the few very reliable things in India is that Pay Toilets In Train Stations Always Cost One Rupee. Apparently I need to watch myself a little more in Rajasthan.
On the other hand, that same day I saw three different Rajput palaces and an enormous fort that made me gasp at the time, but in retrospect, they were pretty mediocre as Rajasthani architecture goes.
Bundi just drove this fact home. I have wandered through Zanzibar, Damascus and Kochi, and they all have the charm that old winding streets dripping with history and buzzing with ancient activity always have, but now I realize that all of these cities were just trying to be like Bundi. Bundi has that same medieval feel, but so much more so: the steep twisting walls are topped with stone visored watchtowers, you pass through a ceremonial gate flaked with sculpted elephants just to get to your hotel, and the walk to the bus stand passes by a dozen consecutive shops where mustachioed turbaned men sit cross-legged and watch as merchants weigh out silver jewellry on a balance that might be six years or six decades old. You have a choice of five different converted havelis to stay in, each decorated with Rajput murals and centered on quiet courtyards. The one where I stayed had a view of the fort from the rooftop and the most exotically decorated dining room I’ve seen in my life.
Then I went to Ajmer, which was also amazing. It has a Jain temple with a diorama of paradise inside measuring at least four by eight meters, and it is made of gold.
Then I went to Pushkar for the Camel Mela. I hooked up with Jill, another American I’d met at the ashram who used to work in Estes Park, 20 miles from where I grew up in Colorado. We spent the days watching camel and horse and cow competitions, which were very boring except for the occasional ornery bull which would break loose and start chasing tourists across the fairground. There were a lot of men in turbans and moustaches, a lot of men selling camels, and a lot of improvised stalls selling pitchforks, camel harnesses, bamboo staves, tea, lunch, inflatable toys, bangles, saddles and bidis. We spent evenings listening to live music at the fairgrounds, or sitting on ghat watching the sunset over the holy lake. One of the ghats we dubbed Hippie Ghat, and in one hour there we saw a pair of Israelis playing capoeira, a girl spinning poi, and a kid in a hoodie riding a Razor scooter. Jill gathered three liters of water from the lake because that full moon was considered very auspicious and one of her friends in Pune wanted to bathe in it.
Then we went to Bikaner, a beautiful Rajasthani city (see description of Bundi for some idea) where we stumbled into the most opulent and tasteful hotel I have seen in India, in a former merchant’s haveli in the old city. A father, son and uncle played drum, harmonium and cymbals for our entertainment while we sipped tea, then invited us to come talk. The boy spoke some English, and taught me some Punjabi and Rajasthani rythms on his drum. I taught him ‘The Entertainer’ on the harmonium, and explained about major and minor chords, and how harmonicas can only play one scale, while harmoniums can play all of them — Dad would’ve been proud.
On the walk home, a group of kids started screaming and grabbing at us because we were white, even though it was dark and Jill was wrapped in a shawl. I said, ‘Jill, we don’t deserve this,’ and we walked away. One of the kids threw a rock at Jill, hitting her in the back. We both turned around and glared at them, and the adults nearby, doing nothing. Another kid came up and apologized to us, ‘Very sorry, madam,’ he said.
Five minutes later, two young men started in on us, talking at a near-shout, walking no more than six inches away:
‘THIS IS YOUR WIFE!’
‘No,’ I said, ‘my friend.’
‘AHHHHH! HA HA. YOUR GIRLFRIEND I THINK!’
‘No. Just my friend.’
‘SHE IS DRESSED LIKE INDIAN WOMAN. MAYBE SHE KNOWS HINDI, HA HA.’
‘No, sorry, I don’t,’ said Jill.
‘WHICH HOTEL YOU ARE STAYING AT?’
‘It’s not actually your business,’ I said
‘HOW DO YOU LIKE INDIA?’
‘It depends on which minute you ask me,’ I said.
‘Ain’t that the truth,’ Jill said.