Saturday, June 20, 2009

Rajasthan

17 February 2009 - 3 March 2009
So, we made the train trip north from Mumbai to Jodhpur, Rajasthan. The overnight train was a bit noisier this time around due to some passengers that got on the train around 11:00 pm (we got on around 4:00pm). Despite the fact that everyone's seat numbers are clearly printed on each ticket and the seats are clearly labelled, the most recent arrivals to our car couldn't seem to sort out where they were supposed to be sitting. The arguing and yelling stretched across the car and pulled Ro and I out of a deep slumber. By the time they'd finished arguing we were completely awake and totally annoyed. What did they all do then? Settle quickly into a farting, snoring sleep that successfully prevented us from doing the same.




Our arrival into Jodhpur saw us accompanied by another well meaning, bossy Indian who was determined to tell us where to go and how to get there. We shook him off and found the man from the hotel we'd booked holding a sign with 'Rohan' written on it. Is there a more comforting sight after on overnight train in India? If there is, I can't rightly think of it. This man put us in a rickshaw and told us to pay the driver 40 Rs upon arrival. We'd been told the pick-up was free and we shared this with our man. With no argument he said 'okay' and sent us on our way. Another 40 Rs saved!

When we'd booked the hotel we'd asked for an inexpensive room. The 650 Rs we were quoted seemed a bit expensive, but it was the cheapest we'd been able to find through research and we wanted somewhere to go after an overnight train ride. Upon arrival there and after a rest we got up and headed out to search out somewhere a bit more budget friendly. We found a good place for 200 Rs and decided we'd move there. When checking out the next day they asked us where we were headed. They pushed us until we told them the hotel we were going to. We told them we'd found a room twice as big, quieter and for half the price, with a view of Mehrangarh Fort from our window. They informed us that they had cheaper rooms they could move us to. Hmm, would've been nice to know about those cheaper rooms from the get go. We decided to go with the hotel that was giving a fair price first up, not only when threatened with losing business. If you're ever in Jodhpur, may I recommened Achar Newas? The rooms are spacious and cheap and the view is spectacular. The people who run the place don't speak enough English to pester you with sales pitches or invasive questioning, yet are kind and pleasant to deal with.

Jodhpur is a spectacular city. It is also referred to as the Blue City because the houses are washed in paint that has indigo in it - this is supposed to keep the buildings cool and act as an insect repellent. It certainly does make the place pretty to look at!

One of the major attractions of Jodhpur is the Mehrangarh Fort. We made our way through the back alleys to try and find it. The fort itself is pretty amazing, particularly a royal room devoted to sensual pleasure with a ceiling carved of gold. The view from the ramparts was pretty spectacular. The hand carved marble screens within the palace were impressive; they were used so women could see what was happening in the court without being exposed to the lustful gaze of men. There was an idol in the museum women prayed to for long life for their husbands. This isn't as selfless as it might sound: the practise of sati (a woman throwing herself on her husband's burning funeral pyre, thereby burning to death and joining her husband in the afterlife) was not uncommon practise. After all, what is a woman's life worth without her husband's dirty underwear to wash?! Sati still happens in rural villages, mostly in Rajasthan.

While sati is no longer widely practised, women seem to have a far inferior role in much of Indian society, though there are laws attempting to reverse this. In the north, most women cover their heads with dupattas and many cover their faces as well. Predominantly boys are favoured for education, food, and sometimes even life, as female infanticide still happens, mainly in the rural areas. On the streets, men are far more prevalent and visible; they greatly outnumber the number of women. Women dress quite conservatively everywhere bar the big cities and even there they dress extremely tamely when compared to the west (a really daring outfit might include fitted jeans and a loosely fitted t-shirt, oh the immodesty!). Like I mentioned, there are a whole slew of laws attempting to change the status and rights of women, but with a civilisation as old as India's, change is slow to come.

We were meandering through the streets of Jodhpur when a man pulled up on a motorcycle and stopped in front of us. 'Be careful around here. You are in much danger. People here attack you. This your problem.' Then he drove away. This news might have been exceptionally unsettling except that Indians are always warning us against them: 'People from (insert city, state, geographical locality, etc.) will cheat you'. This said by a person from a city or state you've just come from and where undoubtedly we'd either been cheated in or there's been attempted cheating.

Not long after our warning, this crazy little man popped out of his house with an exuberant 'Hello!'. He invited us in for tea and since his whole family was there inviting us in, we felt fairly safe. He proceeded to feed us tea, entertain us, and send us on our way.

Jodhpur is a lovely city. The scenery looks so Indian, so much what I pictured India would look like. There's an incredible temple we climbed up ladder after ladder to get to because it's perched on top of a massive rock. The view from in between the rocks holding the temple up is pretty special. Jodhpur has palaces, a fort, a clock tower that the market gathers around, where camels and elephants are seen along with cars and rickshaws.


From Jodhpur we bussed or way to Ossian, a small village about an hour and a half away. As with much of our trip, we knew little to nothing about where were going and when the bus dropped us in the middle of this po-dunk village where no one seemed to speak any English or be the slightest bit interested in helping us, we were wondering if this time we'd stuffed up. Luckily, a priest from one of the local temples showed us to the tourist guest house. The very helpful man at Ossian Guest House, who also runs the town's Jain Temple gave us a room and sold us a three-day camel trek, heading towards Pushkar, our next destination.

So, we found ourselves packing up the next morning and heading out into the desert in the back of a camel cart.

For lunch we stopped at a hut and lunched with some desert men. Once we'd finished lunch the men got out some mystery herb, mixed it with water, filtered the water and insisted we drink it. Not knowing if we were going to get high or diarrhoea (or both), we drank it so as not to offend. It didn't appear to have any immediate effects.

Our next stop was for afternoon tea, where we were served and drank tea with camel's milk in it. We also witnessed our camel man, Dunshing, drink milk fresh from a camel's udder. After we'd packed up and headed off from afternoon tea and after about thirty metres, the camel man pulled over, hopped out, hid behind the cart we were sitting in and did his 'business' so to speak (and I'm not talking about a pee. . .), with us fully in ear shot.

Our camel was a rather randy fellow - here's a look at his mating call.

We set up camp for the night and broke our non-drinking fast by sharing a bottle of Old Monk rum with Dunshing. We were hoping the rum would help us sleep in the too-small camel cart, but for me unfortunately the rum was of no assistance. Getting up in the morning after having frozen and tossed and turned all night, we peeked out from beneath our blankets to see that we had an audience. In good humour we shared our fruit with the family who'd so patiently waited for us to get up so they could watch our every move.

Speaking of audiences, every where we went on the trek we had observers. Every house we went by, every village, every shop , temple or school. Some wanted to chat, others wanted 'one pen', some wanted photos and yet others just wanted to have a really good, solid stare with no interaction. Both Rohan and I were generous with our conversation and provision of entertainment. The constant audience gets tiresome, but getting annoyed or ignoring them is more tiresome and only makes us feel worse. So, I generally say 'hello' and even attempt interaction, even though that provides untold amusement and is met by children and adults alike falling into helpless giggles. On the bright side, I've never been so effortlessly funny in my life!

On day two of the camel trek we stopped for lunch with Dunshing's aunt. There were were subjected to yet another round of 'Gather Round and Stare'. At one point I found myself with three women, one child and five men all sitting on the floor in front of me, as if I were their grade school teacher or something. I wasn't talking, I was just sitting, but let me assure you, it was fascinating! One of my 'pupils', the leering 18 year old one, was somehow nominated to make the rest of the journey with us as our cook and our interpreter (Dunshing speaks a sum total of about 15 words of English; still more than my Hindi or Rajasthani). Unfortunately our new joiner neither spoke English or knew how to cook. His one talent seemed to be leering at me, so neither Ro nor I was thrilled about this boy joining us. Fortunately after an or so he hopped off the cart with no explanation and walked off into the desert. Good riddance!

Night two of the camel trek we settled in with some more Old Monk. Rohan must've consumed a bit too much of the ole' rum because when he attempted to stand up and head to bed, he fell over and landed smack bang on his dirty dinner plate. The next morning he didn't remember going to bed or asking repeatedly for the torch and water, even though he had both in his possession. He did however remember being pulled out his drunken sleep by a Hindi festival in the middle of the desert that started at 12:30. He doesn't remember how late it went because he fell back asleep, but unfortunately I didn't have the same luxury and laid awake until well after the festival finished (3:00am!!!).

The next morning saw us facing our typical studio audience. From the moment our heads popped out of our sleeping bags until the moment we were packed up and ready to go we had a minimum of eight eyes on us. Somehow word always seems to get around that there are foreigners camping and packing their bags, so our audience would grow. The point of camping and trekking was to get away from it all, but by removing four walls and a lockable door, we'd placed ourselves smack-bang in the middle of it. And as a woman, I'm such a novelty out there! You don't see many women around, certainly not in the village centres and absolutely not wandering further than the well from home. On the third morning camel man shared with our audience the fact that I was drinking alcohol the night before and the audience (all men) were visibly shocked. One man was so shocked, yet managed to ask 'You. . . drinking. . .?', as if that could quite possibly be the most preposterous thing he'd ever heard. 'Yes', I admitted, feeling slightly chagrined despite myself. After my shameful confession, I attempted to justify my behaviour by explaining that where I come from, both men and women drink. I would love to have been able to explain that women are treated almost the same as men (yes, there still is sexism in the west, but now's not the time to go into it. After being in India for over two months, I am so appreciative of my freedom in the West) - we can wear, drink and eat whatever we want to. We can go wherever, whenever we want. We can choose to remain unmarried and we don't necessarily have to have children, whether married or not. But how does one explain this to a group of men who speak no English? And even if there was no language barrier, how does one overcome the cultural differences and understanding? Women's lib has hardly touched India and it's yet to be seen in rural Rajasthan. What a strange creature I must be to them.

By the final day of the camel trek I'd resorted to covering my face an attempt to reduce the staring. I can't say it worked. In fact it just made them stare harder and longer to try to figure out what my face looked like. What does it say about the men of a place when women can't even show their faces. . .

The final day saw us making our way to Bawari, where we'd planned to take the bus the rest of the way to Pushkar. There was a town meeting called to discuss, argue and shout about the best way for us to get to Pushkar. We ended up taking the bus route that looked shortest on the map. What should've been a three or four bus trip ended up taking seven, dusty, hot hours over back 'roads'. We arrived in Pushkar so shattered and so tired, but the place we checked into had hot shots and seemed quiet enough. We were both planning on eating some dinner and hitting the hay early.

As we sat down to order dinner, some drums started up next door. And not your teenager practising for her or his rock band, this was some seriously loud and committed drumming coming from directly next door. We asked the hotel man what was going on. He explained that wedding preparations that had been going on for the past four days had finally come together for the last and final night before the wedding. Both Rohan and I were desperate for some sleep and the celebrations were expected to shake the local area (including our hotel room just next door) until two or three in the morning. Thankfully we looked so desperate that the hotel man offered us his house to sleep in for the night. The house turned out to be quiet and dark and provided us with one of the best night's sleep we've had since being in India.

We leave Pushkar tomorrow to head north to Himachal Pradesh. Another overnight train will see us arriving in Dharmasala, where the Dalai Llama is supposed to be giving a teaching on 11 March. We're both quite excited about getting north where it's supposed to be cleaner and a bit more chilled out than where we've been.

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