Day 167, Wed, Oct. 18, 2000 – The Air Mauritius flight was delayed (with no explanation), so they bused us to a local hotel for lunch. We took our final shots of the country’s beautiful flora and went back to the airport. We read some more news on the plane and background on India. It was very late by the time we touched down in Delhi and we took a Taxi through nearly deserted streets – a very uncommon site in India. It was after 3:00 by the time we made it south on the wide boulevards of New Delhi – a new city in an ancient land. We checked into the Hyatt – thankfully, our hotel points just keep going and going like the Energizer bunny. We were met at the door by an exquisitely dressed doorman with plenty of jewels, handlebar moustache and a huge turban – I suppose the image of India expected by the businessmen and the 5-star tourists who stay here. As in other nicer hotels, we were the most motley guests they had, but they were very nice nonetheless. We were just happy to have a comfy bed and a very hot, clean bath.
Day 168, Thur, Oct 19, 2000 – We had to sleep in
after arriving so late. After
coffee and toast, we were able to connect to email and did our admin.
Time Magazine sent us a nicely worded standard response back saying they
would consider publication and let us know.
Our major project today was to see if we could get our cameras fixed
which were still broken from the safari in Africa.
Unfortunately, in India sometimes one project can take all day.
It was now daylight so we could get a much better look at the city than
last night. Delhi covers a huge
area and we took a taxi from the hotel in the south of town, the New Delhi of
the British Raj with wide tree-lined avenues and plenty of breathing room, to
the north, the properly named Old Delhi of narrow streets, monuments, mosques,
tombs, markets and the Red Fort. In
New Delhi you think “gee, this isn’t too wild – not what I heard about
India”. Then you arrive in the
crowded, honking, noisy rickshaw-strewn Old Delhi and go “oh, I see what they
meant”. The mass of humanity is
amazing – pedestrians and bicycles and rickshaws and yellow and black 3-wheel
auto-rickshaws and thousands of bulky, rounded 50’s style cars.
Most taxis, including
ours, resemble London black cabs. We
had a great driver, one of the many Sikhs that disproportionately dominate the
security, military and service sector due to their reputation for competence and
loyalty. We asked him about his
incredible turban and beard (5 meters and 1 meter, respectively) – each a
requirement of his religion. He
said driving wasn’t that bad in Delhi – you just needed “good brakes, good
horn and good luck”.
With the scenery out the window, you get very little clues
as to which decade you are in. In
fact, some of our photos look identical to the pictures in a Berlitz guidebook I
bought ten years ago – the streets cars, rickshaws, bikes, people and cows all
look the same. The decade becomes
apparent only when you see the youngsters gathering on the street chatting on
cell phones. In fact, it is high
technology that just might drag India forward - their advanced information technology
industry, with software designers exporting programming (and people) to the west.
India’s middle-class renaissance in IT was even the subject of a recent Time
magazine cover story. According
to Carnegie-Mellon University, 17 of the 32 “top-quality” software companies
in the world are Indian. The
country’s concentration is in “human capital” rather than “technical
infrastructure”, graduating 120,000 engineers per year compared to 75,000 in
the US. This is despite having only
4.3 million PCs in the country for nearly 1 billion people.
The future may be in the 30 million cable connections (compared to 20
million ancient phone lines) and 75 million TVs. This is quite a different world since my first visit to India
in 1992 when I worked in a Warner Bros. office with just one machine - a
Anyway, we finally found the Sony distributor on a tiny
side street, but they did not have a replacement for our cracked lens (although
they had suggested we come in when we telephoned).
By the time we got out, the sun was going down and the familiar orange haze
descended on New Delhi. Back at the
hotel, we took advantage of an offer from the hotel management for a happy hour
cocktail and snack gathering. It
was obviously meant for the business crowd, so we were the most under-dressed
and were not approached by the sales and marketing types, leaving us free to
engage in the numerous tasty tidbits on offer.
The food was delicious, but it was just an introduction to the culinary
delights of India to come. Indian cuisine is one of our favorites, just behind
Italian. Unfortunately, the last
time I was here I also encountered the infamous “Delhi Belly”, which is one
of the more polite names for the local version of what we call back home the
“Back Door Trots”. I lost 7
pounds in 7 days - thankfully with none of the “accidents” which make for
some famous travel stories. I am
not hoping for a repeat performance since I’ve been down that road before, but
Naomi claims she wouldn’t mind losing the weight we picked up in Europe and
I hope she is wrong.
I hope she is wrong.
Day 169, Fri, Oct 20, 2000 – India has always held
a fascination for Westerners – the strange and exotic East where gods and
gurus; spices and silk; and elephants and tigers, create their own mystique.
It was also home to a complex, mysterious and colorful indigenous
religion (Hinduism) that counted thousands, if not millions of Gods who
sometimes manifest themselves and interact with humans like the ancient Greeks.
After also giving birth to Buddhism and entertaining Asian conquerors that
brought Islam, the country earned the attention of European colonialists. It was such an attraction that Europeans who went looking for India found the
New World instead and called the native inhabitants “Indians”.
Of course, Columbus actually landed in the “West Indies”.
Those explorers who later passed the subcontinent heading East even
called lands further on the “East Indies”. As in East Africa, the British won out in India. The British invasion of
India was more along the imperialist model as opposed to colonial as their
primary objective was to develop trade and exploit the territory’s abundant
natural resources. Although it
sounds odd today, a company (the British East India Company) actually controlled
India for 250 years rather than the British government although Edward was eventually
crowned “Emperor of India” adding the “jewel in the crown”. There were some settlers, but India was primarily used as an
exotic and fertile training ground for governors, administrators, civil
servants, military men (like the pre-Napolean-defeating Nelson) and romantics
like Rudyard Kipling. His tales of
India like “Kim” and “Tales of the Raj” capture the romantic (and
imperialist) notions of the time, and are still recommended reading for armchair
adventurers. The British brought
modern infrastructure to an ancient culture and united disparate lands, cultures
and nations with the most extensive rail network in the world.
This was perhaps the most amazing feat of their colonial times – that
such a small occupying force could bring together such a vast land and enormous
amount of people. Unfortunately, this vastness also created the artificial
joining together of very diverse cultures – particularly Hindu and Muslim.
When independence was finally won from the British in 1947, the
territories were partitioned via huge psychological and political power plays
into India, West Pakistan and East Pakistan (which eventually became
Bangladesh 25 years later). Animosities still rage between the two countries, including a
border/separatist dispute in the Kashmir region that continues to kill hundreds.
The conflict was exacerbated by mutual nuclear tests in 1997 that also
upset the world communities dedicated to nuclear non-proliferation treaties.
Bill Clinton apparently covered the issue when he visited the two
countries earlier this year. We were disappointed to learn that the conflict
even has its own version of the Arab/Israeli conflict over Jerusalem.
In Ayodya a mosque was destroyed in 1992 because
it supposedly occupied the historic birthplace of the Hindu god Rama.
India is now home to the largest democracy in the world, an
incredible fact considering the temptation to bring such a diverse and varied
group of people to heel with more totalitarian methods.
Radicalism has haunted politics since independence. Politicians have learned their lessons the hard way from three of their
most beloved leaders: the revered Mahatma
Gandhi was killed in 1948 for his conciliatory views to the Muslim minority,
Indira Gandhi was killed in 1984
for a military crack down on Sikh separatists in their most holy shrine,
and her son, Rajiv, was killed by Tamil separatists six years later . The political and
bureaucratic landscape continues to be ridiculously complicated and hard to
understand by western standards (although many of the methods were inherited
from British administrators).
Population growth is historically the biggest problem – they are now
approaching the magic billion number. With
current birth rates, experts are predicting that India will surpass China as the
most populated country in the world by 2050.
The diversity of landscapes, from the Himalayas of the North to the
tropical beaches of the South, is mirrored in the vast array of peoples and
cultures. The diversity is second
to none in the world and makes the US look downright monocultural.
There are 15 official languages, each one printed on the rupee bank
notes. Hindi (derived from ancient
Sanskrit) is the most common language (after trying to struggle through Cyrillic
or Arabic, we’ve basically surrendered by now).
Thankfully, English is used for business, government, and tourist areas -
although literacy in any language is an astoundingly low 60%.
This illiteracy, overpopulation and lack of adequate resources have
contributed to dire poverty for the majority of Indians.
Per capita GDP is US$2,167
compared to US$33,872 in the US,
people per doctor is 2,165 compared to 387
, people per telephone is 46 compared to
1 , and life expectancy is 62 compared to
77. The dire economics and
overpopulation have forced many people to the streets to beg for subsistence.
Many travelers have difficulty dealing with the numbers of beggars –
disabled and otherwise – clinging to Westerners and tugging at sleeves as well
as heartstrings. As in Africa, we
try to benefit as many people as possible without handouts as we agree with aid
agencies and governments, that giving cash encourages dependence, organized
crime (i.e. “begging syndicates”) and self (and family) mutilations.
You are more likely to really help by giving food to beggars or cash
directly to some of the many aid organizations.
We admit, however, that we sometimes relent and give to those who appear
the worst off of the group.
As with other developing countries, the lack of economic
power and infrastructure has a direct effect on the cleanliness of the country,
particularly the cities. This
unfortunately makes a poor impression with visitors.
With nearly a billion people generating trash (not to mention millions of
cows generating waste) everyday, the country is in a constant futile struggle to
clean itself – you constantly see people watering down the dust and sweeping
porches, sidewalks and streets with small straw brooms.
Unfortunately, people intent on cleaning are outnumbered by those tossing garbage
anywhere and those who don’t think twice about relieving themselves of various
bodily fluids in the broad daylight of public streets, squares, and markets. with
regard to public (and private) facilities, like
the vast majority of the world’s population, they see no reason to abandon the
age-old hole in the ground toilet system (one must remember never to touch
anything or anyone with your left hand as it is assumed that one is used rather
than paper). Westerners may have
issues with squatting, but Easterners think it is much more disgusting to make
contact with the same seat that strangers do – and they are probably right. In most cities, the population has grown much faster than the
necessary infrastructures, resulting in open drainage canals (and sometime
sewers) between buildings and streets. Add
to this the free-roaming cows and numerous urban camels, donkeys, horses, pigs,
goats and dogs who don’t necessarily care too much where they shit, and you
have the recipe for a fairly unappetizing sensory stew and some very interesting
strolls, especially in sandals. We
fortunately have not had any major missteps to date.
Then there’s the air – or lack of it.
The natural dust level, coke-burning industries, open fire cooking,
natural dust and traffic (mostly diesel and two-stroke auto rickshaws) conspire
to clog the lungs of visitors and reduce the life spans of some residents.
Finally, there’s the famous Indian love of bureaucracy and red tape
inherited from their British administrators.
Some people say any transaction requires at least twice the time, three
times the paperwork and four times the employees it should require.
So, having said all of this, why does the country hold such
a fascination with travelers for centuries?
Easy – India may be a comparatively dirty and frustrating place, but it is also the
most fascinating country on the planet. It
is human experience at its most intense and world culture at its most abundant
and complex - the incredible history of princes (like Siddhartha, who became
Buddha), kingdoms, Maharajas and Moguls; beautiful art; colorful clothing from
saris to turbans to jewels; hot tasty food (a recent survey found that an
alarming percentage of English men prefer a good curry to sex); some of the most
amazing and intricate architecture in the world such as the Taj Mahal; a religious
atmosphere of gods, demons, festivals, gurus, monks, ascetics, and sadhus that
have attracted seekers from all over the world for centuries, especially during
the cultural revolution that was the 1960’s when the Beatles visited the
Maharishi Yogi (according to Mark Twain, "in religion all other contries
are paupers and India is the only millionaire") ; centuries of musical tradition with home-grown tablas, zithers
and sitars like that of the amazing Ravi Shankar who also worked with the
Beatles; the world's original sex manual, the Kama Sutra, full of mysterious Eastern
techniques and numerous erotic temples and sculpture;. the largest film industry
in the world, dwarfing Hollywood’s output; a great home of freedom and
democracy where everyone's opinion is tolerated (and debated); the birthplace of
the philosophy of non-violent resistance that led from Gandhi to King to
Mandela; the home of the quintessential philanthropist Mother Teresa; and
finally the people – intelligent, curious, open, warm, friendly, and serious.
The combination of all these attractions can only be found in one place – a
country of extreme experiences (heavenly or hellish) and overwhelming sensory
input. Compared to India everything
else looks freshly scrubbed and sanitized for your protection, like Disneyland
or a morgue. Simply put, one feels
more alive in India than most anywhere else in the world.
Today we got more close-up looks with errands to the Chinese embassy, Vietnam consulate, and a camera repair shop to drop off the Olympus. The fist two stops were in the wide, easy New Delhi, but the camera shop was in the heart the Chandni Market in Old Delhi. It is an example of why Fodor's guide book called India "Cosmic Chaos": a medieval labyrinth of alleys, shops, stands, horses, carts, cows, and above all, people. Once out of our taxi, we weren’t really walking, we were floating down Chandni Chowk like a cork on a sea of humanity– our feet not touching the ground, which is a good thing, knowing what is down there. As we approached a particularly heavy crowd, we realized they were circling a man sprawled out on the street. He was barely conscious, twitching a little and foaming at the mouth. We were much more alarmed than everyone else and asked a few people if an ambulance had been called. One guy said he was just having a seizure and continued to dig into his biriyani lunch 10 feet away. We went into a nearby hotel and convinced them to call someone. We waited around until he stirred. Thankfully, we saw him sitting up on the sidewalk later. Afterward, we visited the 350-year old Mughal Red Fort, named for the red sandstone dominating the riverside. There were incredible carved marble audience halls, views across the river, and the throne room where the famous peacock throne of precious stones once stood before being looted. We attracted quite a following of school kids on field trip and Naomi continued to receive the unwanted stares of most guys since she had the audacity to wear shorts in the 90-degree –plus heat. There was also a number of Westerner tourists inside the fort in varying degrees of “going local” - some sporting the traditional Indian wear of loose kurta shirt over baggy pajama bottoms. Most had sandals and some had the typical large embroidered shoulder bags. In the world’s largest venue of east meeting west, the west dresses east and the east snickers but appreciates the attempt. They both know the visitors will never wear those clothes back home.
We took an auto-rickshaw through the crowd.
The rickshaw seats just happen to be the perfect height for sucking in
enormous amounts of carcinogens spewing from the diesel and two-stroke vehicles.
We may as well take up smoking since we plan on spending so much time in
India. The curious crowds look into
our rickshaw as we drive, and at each stop lanes are completely ignored as bikes
and rickshaws wiggle to the front of the queue and converge into a single mass
of humans, machinery and fumes – many touching and some leaning on others for
support. We rode to the Jama Masjid mosque, the largest in India and the
spiritual home of the country’s 11% Muslim minority.
This is a fairly small percentage considering the nearly
3 centuries of Mughal rule until the Brits arrived.
Like the homegrown Buddhism and Portuguese Christianity in the South
around Goa, Islam could never really dominate the much older Hindu
infrastructure and belief systems. Jama
Masjid was built by Shah Jahan, who also built the Red Fort and the Taj Mahal at
the height of the Mughal empire. The
combination of red sandstone and marble in a huge open space was beautiful as we
felt the cool under our feet. We
climbed one of the minarets for superb views over the old city and to the fort.
Inside the mosque, we were shown relics of the Islamic faith, including a
red whisker from Mohammed’s beard, a “preserved” footprint, and a
translation of some verses of the Koran done by his grandson.
We walked down the steps, through the market and got a bicycle rickshaw
along the river. It was much more
quiet and leisurely than the auto-rickshaw, but also gave us closer encounters
with the wondrous Indian bovines. The sacred cow turns up everywhere – yards,
streets, sidewalks, traffic islands – you never know when you will run into
one. They are treated with such
reverence not just as vehicle for and earthly reminder of the God Shiva,
but also as a symbol of fertility, nurturing
As such, they can go
anywhere and do anything with impunity – free to roam or lounge at will.
They amble slowly like they own the place, similar to house cats in the west.
They are oblivious to the loud and unwieldy chaos around them, but we
can’t tell if they are above it all as if they know they are sacred or just
stupid. Unlike in Africa, you
hardly ever see their “keepers” around so you wonder where they come from
– did they get left in the middle of the street in the morning to forage for
garbage (and newspaper, of all things) and where do they go at night?
For all we can tell from observation, they are wild like water buffalo in
Africa and never milked or penned.
The bicycle rickshaw stopped at Raj Ghat, the solemn memorial to one the great men of the century and one of our personal heroes: Mahatma Gandhi. Befitting his disdain for pomp and ostentation, the memorial is a simple black marble slab with an eternal flame in the center of a peaceful square garden. Hundreds of people were filing by to pay their respects, pray and leave flowers on the cold silent marble. Around the exterior is a walking path and some quotes from his amazing life-long struggle for peaceful coexistence, non-violent resistance to tyranny, and rights for the unfortunate (including the country’s repressed lower castes and “untouchables”). As the fight for independence from Britain deteriorated into a nasty religious and ethnic fight for territory that tore the country apart, Gandhi struggled to maintain peace through diplomacy, speeches and hunger strikes that nearly killed him. His status, level of respect and force of personality probably prevented thousands of deaths. Even 52 years after his death (ironically at the hands of a “devout” Hindu assassin) his memory lives brightly in millions of Indians and foreigners alike and his message of righteous protest still inspires masses like those in Belgrade that toppled Milosevic. His thoughts have easily made their way into our summary of favorite ideas and quotes. We bought a couple of his books at the bookshop near the memorial. Please pardon the following indulgence in wanton idealism – employing these things may not be easy, but we believe they are worth thinking about.
“When the isolated drops meet, they share the majesty of the ocean to
which they belong”
“Destruction is not the law of humans.
Man lives freely only by his readiness to die, if need be, at the hands
of his brother, never by killing him. Every
murder or other injury, no matter for what cause, committed or inflicted on
another is a crime against humanity”
“It has always been a mystery to me how men can feel themselves honored
by the humiliation of their fellow beings”
“It may be long before the law of love will be recognized in
international affairs. The machineries of government stand between and hide the
hearts of one people from those of another”
“Man becomes great exactly in the degree in which he works for the
welfare of his fellow men”
"It is the law of love that rules mankind. Had it been violence (i.e. hate) we should have become extinct
long ago. And yet, the tragedy of it is that the so-called civilized men and
nations conduct themselves as if the basis of society was violence"
"First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they attack you,
and then you win"
Day 170, Sat, Oct. 21, 2000 – After such a full
day yesterday, we took a day to recover, write and read. Like Indian food, the cultural experiences around here
sometimes take a while to digest. This
is truly an amazing country.
Day 171, Sun, Oct. 22, 2000 – Well, like all good
things, our free stay at the Hyatt had to come to an end. We checked out and moved to the Jukaso Hotel in Connaught
Place, the massive circular commercial center of New Delhi, and had another
incredible Indian meal. We have
really been very impressed so far – even with the vegetarian fair. Although we love the creamy curries and baked tandori meats,
our standard meal is a thali, which is kind of a set meal of 4-5 little dishes
in metal bowls with rice, dal (lentils), raita (yogurt), curry and chapati
bread. Naomi loves thalis
because of the built-in separation of dishes – it fits right into her
Day 172, Mon, Oct 23, 2000 – One of those days of
frustrating hassle, stress and patience-testing encountered anywhere in the
developing world, but particularly fun in India. To avoid crowds, we had to get
to the train station as the ticket offices were opening at 7:00.
We sidestepped the overnight sleepers, beggars and cripples, remembering
the admonishment from Lonely Planet not to encourage the trade (in favor of
giving to local charities) and made it to the special foreigner ticket office
upstairs. The “information and
assistance” clerk was really full of something that resembled neither and the
ticket seller nearly turned us away since we did not complete the “ticket
request form” completely. She
wanted us to go back to the rear of the “information” line to obtain the
train number although she knew what it was. Afterward we went to the airline office to complete the rest
of our Indian tour. We booked many
cities, but unfortunately our schedule could not accommodate the Punjab region
and Amritsar, the center of India’s other homegrown religion, Sikhism.
After this, there was a crazy wild goose chase all over New Delhi looking
for a PCI network card so we could try to upload the website in this speedier
manner. We were given wrong
information by several different people, many of them employing that inimitable
head tilt used in India – a sort of combination half-nod, half-shake with a
slight tilt to one side and back It
appears to mean “yes” sometimes, “no” other times, but it probably means
“maybe” all the time. We eventually surrendered after the fourth computer
store and gave up on errands altogether. The
good news is we had an opportunity to practice building good karma with patience
and kindness. Karma has been called
the only kind of glue possible that could have held this anarchic, fragmented,
outlandish society together. How is
it that even the poorest and most miserable Indian can smile in the face of
adversity? It is probably due to their undying belief in the spiritual realm –
that all is illusion, soon to be over. You
better start doing something with your mind and spirit, get ready because
you’re leaving and you can’t take one thing with you.
Good karma is needed so that when the current illusion is over (e.g.
death), one can be reborn into a better illusion. The concept of karma reinforces that all is connected in an
intricate web of life. As Rudyard
Kipling wrote in Kim, “thou hast loosed an act upon the world and as a
stone thrown into a pool so spread the consequences thou canst not tell how
far”. A more real-world and
modern explanation is quoted from an Indian in A Season in Heaven:
“Nothing is free in this life, you may not have to pay in money, but sooner or
later you pay. We call it Karma.”
Anyway after the morning lessons, we took a rickshaw to Humayan’s tomb, a precursor to the Taj Mahal with some of the architectural elements. Unlike Taj, however, it was very quiet, almost devoid of tourists and a little overgrown with weeds and trees. There were two old women harvesting grass in the yard. They asked us for money to go inside, but the ticket seller said they were crazy.
We enjoyed the respite from the hectic day very much and rewarded (indulged?) ourselves with an old American favorite, TGI Fridays, for dinner. It was the most expensive meal we have had in India. We took a taxi to the train station for our overnight train to Jodhpur. With the plethora of ticketing possibilities on Indian trains, you never really know what kind of seat you have until you get there. We shared a cabin with a nice French couple, taking the two hard upper bunks. There are no doors on train cabins, just flimsy curtains that keep billowing open when someone walks by – or they get pulled open rather annoyingly by tea, biscuit, fruit and rice sellers who board the train at each stop and yell out their wares notwithstanding the time of day or number of sleepers. Needless to say, in this environment we did not feel quite as safe as in Europe where the cabins have doors with two or more locks. We put a cable lock on the bags under the French couple, but we slept with our important stuff as pillows. I was a little tall for the design of the bunks, so me feet stuck out, pushing the curtain into the aisle. Unfortunately, we hadn’t showered since morning - maybe that’s why that baby in the next cabin was crying all night.
Day 173, Tues, Oct 24, 2000 – Upon arrival at 8:00 we were sleepy and stumbled onto the platform and out to the madness of rickshaw drivers vying with each other for our business. We picked a reasonable looking young guy and headed out. His rickshaw was decorated with Christmas lights, hanging pompoms, and photos of his favorite actresses – much more colorful that the ones in Delhi. He talked us into trying his “commission” hotel and we agreed since it was in Lonely Planet – we couldn’t be too careful since LP warned of a food poisoning scam prevalent in Jodhpur. They apparently poison victims, then give them unneeded expensive treatments at the local hospital and collect from rich tourists or their insurance companies. His recommendation turned out great. Haveli Guest House is a very casual and extremely friendly family-run mansion undergoing renovation using the famous peach-colored pathar stone of the region. We got a neat little room for $9 and had a little breakfast overlooking the town and the massive fort which dominates the horizon. The manager, Upendra, welcomed us and offered to help with any arrangements around town or the rest of Rajasthan. Whenever I asked if something was possible, he answered "in India all things are possible".
We came up with an itinerary that would take in the major highlights of the colorful desert-kingdoms of the Rajastan state, including Jaisalmer, Ranakpur, Udaipur and Jaipur. Rajastan is the land of chivalry and honor and fiercely independent warriors who were the last holdouts against invading Mughals. The descendents of these warriors are very proud of their fighting tradition. When all was lost, the Rajput men donned ritual saffron robes for suicide by battle called jauhar and their women even came up with the “chivalrous” sacrificial act of sati, throwing themselves on the funeral pyres of their dead husbands. This is now outlawed, but still happens once in a while and when it does the woman is revered as a goddess. Rajastan is also the kingdom of titles – Raja, Maharaja, Maharana – all of which mean “someone more important than you” but not many people could tell us the difference between all the titles.
We took our rickshaw to the white marble tomb overlooking the city – a sort of mini-Taj, then to the fort itself. It is one of the largest in the country, literally dominating the skyline. We walked amongst the intricate sandstone carvings and luxurious apartments. There were beautiful kids at the Hindu temple behind the fort and from the cannon positions, you can see the hundreds of houses painted the royal blue of the Brahmin caste, the highest.
Outside the fort, there was a pitiful little girl of about three made to dance a jig in bangles and makeup to her father’s screechy violin. One thing that really saddens us about the developing world is the plight of children. In spite of government lip service and UN resolutions, etc. kids are often forced to forego any real childhood joys and start working, first around the household and then in the fields, shops or restaurants, from the time they can walk – often providing support for the family. With the same responsibilities and stress, they are basically made into “little adults” without ever having a proper nurturing childhood or schooling.
We continued to the pathar stone Umaid Bhawan Palace, the last great building in the area, where massive funds were spent on an empire that would soon be gone. It is now a 5-star hotel with antiques and decorations from a bygone era (including plenty of morbid stuffed animals). At sunset we had a delicious dinner on the roof of the hotel as fireworks marking the Diwali festival started to go off around the city. Diwali is the biggest and most important holiday in the Hindu year. It celebrates the end of Vishnu’s 14-year exile and the victory of truth (light) over ignorance (darkness) - hence the lighting of oil lamps and fireworks at night. It is a time of gift-giving, new clothes, new ventures, closing of fiscal books, family meals and general celebration – a sort of combination Christmas, New Year, Mardi Gras and Independence day. Bottle rockets streamed by us and firecrackers popped all night.
Day 174, Wed, Oct. 25, 2000 – After breakfast on the roof, we took a 4-hour drive through the countryside to the Jain temple complex at Ranakpur. Throughout the drive, we saw some of the most incredible, exotic people we have yet seen - the women in incredibly colorful silk skirts, saris, embroidery and veils and the men with pointed shoes, huge twisting turbans that seem to be twice the size of their heads and long curly mustaches that would put Salvador Dali to shame. In one day, we’ve seen most every type of transportation in India – bicycle, auto rickshaw, taxi, bus, train, camel, donkey, horse, ox-cart, wheelbarrow, and horse carriage. When people are not using these modes of travel, they are walking – invariably with a load to carry: shopping, firewood, food, pots, pans, almost anything. One group had loads of straw engulfing their heads and drooping down to their knees. It appears that women do most of the carrying - and they have the incredible developing-world knack of carrying any of these things balanced perfectly on their heads as they stroll along in an effortless glide. If anyone in the west tried that, they wouldn’t make it two steps – I have trouble keeping a baseball cap on my head sometimes. Everyone seems to be going somewhere or doing something – in a hurry, but in a casual hurry, not like the Manhattan stroll of the US. Notwithstanding the smiles we see constantly, the widespread poverty and horrendous living conditions are similar to what we’ve seen of Africa - the vast majority of the population is mired in relentless day-to-day struggles to survive, while the economy chugs along without helping their plight. As a traveler trying to take everything in, a big difference between Africa and India is the offsetting positives aspects– in Africa it is the incredible wildlife, nature and landscapes and in India it’s the unparalleled temples, palaces, tombs, and memorial and fortification architecture. In this regard, Ranakpur is a gem – more artwork than architecture – an immaculate 600-year old temple with 1,444 delicately carved marble pillars – each one a different intricate pattern of geometric, floral and religious motif (one of them is purposely tilted to show the imperfection of works of man). It’s a veritable forest of shining, luminous tree trunks, showing the beauty of creation in the precepts of the Jain religion. In the word of the temple literature it is “a poem in stone…majestic yet in complete harmony with mother nature…devotional architecture bathed in celestial bliss”. It’s difficult to disagree - we haven’t seen marble so finely sculpted since Michelangelo’s Pieta in Rome. Inside, we met a monk who gave the basic precepts of Jainism, which was founded around the same time as Buddhism and focuses on nonviolence, even to the extent of brushing insects from their paths to avoid killing them. We didn't think it was appropriate to ask him about the women, but read that it had something to do with celebrating fertility and nurturing.
As we returned to the tourist car (another bulbous 50s-era Ambassador), Naomi was approached by a screeching monkey – much more aggressive than in Africa. We had visions of the film “Outbreak” – we joked about it until we remembered that there was a real-world outbreak of the Ebola virus in Uganda this month – far from a laughing matter. After the temple, Upendra had arranged for the driver to take us to Ghanerao Castle – once a formal royal castle, but now one of India’s famous heritage hotels. It was truly the lap of luxury, with huge sitting rooms, dens, balconies and cushy tearooms. The castle is huge, but there were only 4 guests, so we had the run of the place. At sunset we watched multi-colored peacocks and bright green parrots playing in the grounds from the rooftop. After dinner, which was a bit odd being the only people in a huge dining hall that previously hosted sumptuous royal banquets, we took a walk around town with cows, pigs dogs and a group of kids eager to practice their English with us. The town is a very mellow, laid-back antidote to Jodphur and Delhi.
Day 175, Th Oct 26, 2000 – After waking in our luxurious castle, we drove the four hours back to Jodhpur to be there for the biggest day of the Diwali festivities. The holiday is not only for religious observance, but also an opportunity to crank up the volume on the Indian symphony to 11. The crowd was enormous with last minute shopping for food, decorations, haircuts. shaves, fireworks and clothes. It was a vivid example of Tamsha (Hindi for "spectacle" or "happy confusion"). Driving around the clock tower was like driving through Grand Central Station at rush hour. We kept getting nasty looks from pedestrians because our beefy old Ambassador was the only car trying such a bold maneuver. Our driver was honking at everyone, embarrassing the hell out of us, helpless in the back seat with people, cows, donkeys and horses pressed against our doors – we had to roll up the windows, making us look even more like elitist snobs.
We wanted to get out and join the crowd but it was
impossible – besides, our driver was so determined to fulfill his
responsibility to get us from doorstep to doorstep we didn’t want to deprive
him of the job satisfaction (or maybe he just wanted to get home to his family
for Diwali too) We made it back to
Haveli Guest House in one piece and were greeted like family again.
They really provide a comfortable atmosphere. After lunch, we watched the city around us getting ready for
the holiday – setting out little clay oil pots, stringing multi-color lights,
and starting to set of fireworks all around us.
As the sun set and night fell, the clock tower lit up with decorations
and the real show began – the whole city took part, with rockets and flashes
from every corner. We had one of
the best views from the guesthouse roof – one of the highest in the
neighborhood. The fort high above
the city got into the act, firing
off a few of its own – illuminating the blue houses below.
We could only imagine the kind of show the city would put on if they had
even a fraction of the budget of the Sydney Olympics or the Y2K celebration
committees. We sat on the rooftop
terrace to take it all in and felt like the city was under siege – we recalled
the CNN coverage of Baghdad being shelled, although the residents of Jodhpur
were a bit happier about it. The family brought huge boxfuls of fireworks up to
the roof for our own show – it looked like they’d bought out an entire
store. We probably put on one of
the best shows in town if seen from the other rooftops, blowing off bottle
rockets, geysers, sparklers, crackers, bombs and spinners.
The family was dedicated to ensuring full participation, so all the
guests (about 15 of us foreigners) got to light a few.
Naomi had one geyser that showered her with sparks as she trotted away
and I lit a string of firecrackers that went on forever.
The amount of explosives available to the average person is incredible
– they are not quite as restrictive about these things as the authorities in
the States. Before we realized how
different these were, some errant pieces of shrapnel made their way to the crowd,
burning a hole in Naomi’s shirt and poking me in the face.
One sneaky ember got caught between my toes and created blisters on both
of them! Needless to say, we backed
off a bit after that and some of the guests ducked under a table when the big
ones were lit. The show went on for
hours, filling the city (and our rooftop) with tons of smoke and debris.
It was like the dry ice at a KISS concert.
We were exhausted before our supply was and turned in at 1:00, but the
explosions kept on around us all night – some sounding as if they were right
outside our door (probably because they were).
Day 176, Fri Oct 27, 2000 – The bus that usually goes to Jaisalmer at 6:00 was not running due to Diwali, so we took the opportunity to sleep in, although the sounds of multiple rocket attacks made it somewhat difficult. We spent the morning rearranging our schedule for the rest of India at the Indian Airlines office and the train station. The experience was much more enjoyable than in Delhi, but the bureaucracy is still ridiculous – the ticket agents refuse to speak to you until you’ve completed a reservation form, even if you just want to change the date of travel (this requires two forms, one to cancel the old ticket and one to book the new one). The problem is, the form requires train number, class and fare, but this information is only accurately available from the agent. Anyway, we got all sorted out and took the auto rickshaw back “home”. We made further arrangements with Upendra and had dinner on the roof. Tonight was a little less exciting than yesterday, but there was still the odd celebrant firing of a rocket, bomb, or geyser. We had to turn in early for a 6:00 bus tomorrow, so we said sad goodbyes to the staff of the guesthouse, who took a special interest in our trip and had bent over backward to ensure our enjoyment.
Day 177, Sat, Oct 28, 2000 – We actually woke up
and packed on time and the rickshaw driver took us, groggy and sadly coffee-less
to the bus depot while the stars were still out.
It wasn’t so much a depot as a dusty alleyway with a rusty 20-year old
Tata bus parked in it. A vendor was
boiling up some milky sweet tea, but we thought the milk looked a bit dodgy, so
we passed. On the bus, the seats
were assigned. This is usually a
benefit, but we got the only seat with a window immovably stuck open, so we
caught the brunt of the early chill blowing in the window before the sun was up.
At one stop, there was a huge argument because two English couples were
not allowed on the bus without the proper ticket – they apparently bought them
from another company and had missed that bus.
They were making an incredible scene, cursing at everyone, but the
Indians were quite amused and we were embarrassed for them.
One guy went on about the hassles of India, obviously unaware (or
impervious) to the hassles his ancestors had caused the Indians.
Our seat in the front was also torturously close to the
tinny speakers blaring Hindi pop songs. It
reminded us of the Hindi film we saw on the plane over here – the typical
combination of action-packed chases, intrigues and violence peppered every five
minutes with a huge dancing and singing routine that would make Busby Berkeley blush. Indians see nothing odd
about mixing the genres, but to us it seems like “The Sound of Music” bursting out
in the middle of “Mission Impossible” – with all plot tension relieved
through , dazzling choreography, swinging hips, twangy nasal singing, and coy
flirting (although actual kisses were forbidden until very recently).
Indians go to the movies
more often than any population in the world and the country releases more movies
than any other country. We have not
been able to escape the gaze of the latest star, Hrithik Roshan, since we got to
India – he peers from thousands of billboards, posters, magazines, and adverts
throughout the country. Indians are
so enamored of their movie stars that there were violent street riots when a
famous actor, Rajkumar, was kidnapped from his home by an infamous bandit wanted
for over a hundred murders. The
twists and turns of the crisis have been front page news ever since.
The bandit, Veerappan (famous people sometimes have one name here), made
some ransom demands involving the release of numerous prisoners and alleged
terrorists from Indian jails. In
the murky world of Indian politics, the authorities in two southern states
actually agreed to do it. They
apparently thought nothing of setting the example that kidnapping and extortion
work wonders for your cause. The case is now with the Supreme Court to decide if
the local governments can actually let prisoners go.
Anyway, five hours and much more sunshine later, we had crossed the dry Thar dessert and saw the golden sandcastle-like fort of Jaisalmer rising in the horizon. It really is a sight from “An Arabian Knight” or “The Man Who Would Be King”. We checked into Upendra’s sister hotel, Sarovar, for $3 and walked around outside the fort,. We had a thali at Fort View Restaurant, which actually has an accurate name. I got some incredible views of the market area and people going about their daily business as Naomi shopped for bit for some of the great metal, wood and embroidery. Jaisalmer is the dry center of ancient Rajput territories, where the craggiest and most eccentric of Rajasthanis live – the faces are craggier, the colors more brilliant, the jewelry more flashy and embroidery more intricate - especially offset against the golden brown surroundings. There’s also more makeup on babies and long fingernails and jewelry on men (two things that take a little getting used to). We walked around studying the pride of Jaisalmer - the unbelievably intricate carved stone balconies throughout the town. They are particularly impressive in two old havelis (mansions). The rich merchants who built havelis forbade common designs, so each one is a little different. There is more old-world character here than in Jodhpur, somewhat because there is much less traffic and honking.
Day 178, Sun, Oct. 29, 2000 – Spent the day inside the fort itself. Jaisalmer is a unique castle experience because it is actually a living breathing city with people living in the ancient walls and towers of the citadel – women wash clothes, children play, and laundry dangles between windows over the dusty street. We turned down some alleys and wound up in somebody’s front yard where a woman was sifting grain as her kids played with a goat. We went inside the Jain temples, but it was hard to impress us after Ranakpur. A wonderful lunch was had at the “Refreshing Point” overlooking the palace. We bypassed the more famous “bhang” shops which sell a concoction which includes rather strong ganja as the active ingredient in the interests of not tempting fate. We visited the palace afterward - the views over the city are excellent and we chatted with the guard about the city. Nearby, we got a great personal tour of a haveli from the owner. The house had been in his family for 300 years, so he knew all the great history and intriguing stories. The owner showed us how the top floor had to be removed because it made the haveli higher than the Maharaja's. He also explained that the doorways were not short because the people were shorter back then, but because it forced visitors to bow their heads in “respect” just to get through the door. It also put them in a good position for a surprise head-chopping from the guards behind the door if their visit was not friendly. Our favorite room was the dancing room with a mirrored ceiling where the owner used to watch girls dance to the sounds of the musicians who had to hide behind sandstone screens so they couldn’t see the girls. After the tour, we interviewed the owner and his father:
Hajipt: Respect is the most important – if you have no respect, you have nothing in life. If you have no money, then you just do something so you can eat. If you have a lot of money, it is not possible for you to sleep because you will think where will I put the money.
K.S. “Health is most important – if you do not have good health, you can not enjoy life”
Near the haveli is a carpet shop where we talked to the manager, Dunger “We need more business so we can have money to start a good family. But I don’t like to work all night – that is not life – life is to be enjoyed”
Back in the market area, I continued watching the river of life pass by: ambling cows, camel carts, women with babies, rickshaws, tourists.
Naomi finalized our purchases. We got some gifts and some loose-fitting cotton clothes to deal with the heat. The owner, Hanuman gave a lengthy interview:
live together in health, to have a good family, to help neighbors who are poor.
If you help them they can go to school and get better lives and things.
Some people have many children – for them, please – no more than two
or three. In India we have respect
for everything. Like women, we
respect because they can be mother, sister, daughter of someone – or
grandmother. We respect cows
because they represent mothers.
Day 179, Mon, Oct. 30, 2000 – After
breakfast we internetted - which is everywhere,
even this remote
outpost. It is odd when the only reminder of the 20th century is something
from the last five years. we had to go to the post office to ship the package of gifts.
Yesterday we allowed the shop owner to sew up the package into a cloth bag at the
shop thinking it was just an
eccentric Indian custom. Well, the post
office was full of such packages because they do not accept plain boxes for shipment.
They also require you to sew on the paper mailing documents with needle
and thread – we didn’t even want to
think of what happens when the paper gets torn off.
In spite of the help from our driver, Muhammad,
we give it a 10% chance of making it to LA intact (the lowest level of
confidence on our trip). The visit
was a great sociological experience – an example of India as “the great
patience tester”. The customers
are very accustomed to
waiting since being speedy in India is not only frowned upon, but futile since
it will only lead to stress. However,
once the service window is in sight, most people are incapable of approaching
the window one at a time – 7 people speak at once and the polite serenity
gives way to elbowing. It’s fun to watch unless you are involved, in which
case thinking of Buddha helps.
We had lunch at Fort View again, this time trying the
special Rajasthani curries (delicious), then continued on a long journey outside
town with our auto rickshaw driver, Mohammed.
He took us
to the elaborate Jain temples at Lodhruva where a live snake appears for
worship on auspicious days and then the tombs of local Maharajas at Bada Bagh.
We finally saw our first painted cow, which we had been looking for since
Diwali started. On the outskirts of
town, past the mud villages and the rows of Frisbee-sized discs of drying cow
dung used for fuel we saw evidence
of the Army presence since this is the nearest we are going to the Pakistani
border. According to Muhammad, the
hostilities have settled down somewhat since the mutual nuclear tests a while
back, but he does not see a bright future for the Kashmir region north of
Rajasthan. From miles away, you can
see the fort rising up from the desert floor and we were there just as the
sun was setting and a musician stroked an Indian violin singing ancient desert
songs for a few rupees.
We had a great dinner on the roof of our hotel, after the
from the local cows and said goodbye to the Sarovar staff, signing his
guest book. When boarding our overnight train back to Jodhpur but had to ask
someone to give up our assigned bunks. Security
was about the same as our last train, so we slept with our most important
goodies strapped to our bodies.
If you would like to follow our adventure to Udaipur, please click here: Photojournal October 31 - November 10.
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