Saturday, October 4, 2008

Indian Summer: Chapter 5


So it's been a while since I wrote about my Indian journey, but a few things in the news lately have brought it back to the forefront of my mind. Last I left off, I had just gotten off a camel in Jaisalmer and was about to travel by train once again through the desert to the city of Jodhpur, also in the area of India known as Rahjastan. We were in Jodhpur for one night, one full day, and my memory of the place is full with images of blue stained buildings, towering forts, desert expanses and peaceful temples. Yet a few days ago, other images have been crowding for place in my mind when I think of Jodhpur. I went onto the New York Times website a couple of days ago and saw near the bottom of the page a small headline. 163 killed in stampede in India. There was a time when I might not have clicked on the link. But now when I see a story about India, I look closer. I had to reread the beginning of the article a few times to process that the stampede had happend in Jodhpur, at the gates of its famous and beautiful fort. A little more than 6 weeks ago, I walked the same path where all of those people died. This is sort of a depressing way to start this post, but I guess I just needed to explain how strange it is now to read about these terrible things happening in India, whether it's terrorist bombs going off in the same area where we stayed in Dehli or a deadly stampede in Jodhpur. These things recieve so little coverage here in the US, and that may never change. But after traveling to India, and meeting the people and getting closer to the culture, I can never just see a headline about India in a detached way again. And if that's not an advantage of travel, then nothing is. Travel opens up the world, but it also makes the world smaller, in the best possible way. It creates bridges and ties people together. We should never be detached about death or destruction, not when it happens to other humans. And by never traveling, its possible to tune out the rest of the world, to convince yourself that we're all so different and that the people over there are not like the people here. And in that way you can be detached, even apathetic. So if for no other reason, travel in order to widen your capacity for empathy. Travel so that you can never tell yourself something is somehow less awful or less sad just because it happened to someone on the other side of the world.

So now on to far less depressing subjects! So as per usual, we got from Jaisalmer to Jodhpur by train. And my sister, Lucy, thought it might be fun for us to travel at least once in true Indian fashion, i.e. in the non-AC, lowest category possible car of a train. She has a lot of friends from India, and they all told her that at least once it was worth it to experience the craziness of that journey, and our trip to Jodhpur was only six hours (a milisecond compared to all of our other voyages). I was skeptical about journeying through the Indian desert without AC. Yet I consented. However, we soon learned when we got to the station, that because we were tourists, even though we tried to book ourselves in the coachiest coach class there was, the operators of the train wouldn't even let us on those cars (where apparently goats are passengers and formal seating is not in any way guaranteed). I thought that was hillarious, because it's polar opposite from the United States. Can you imagine the uproar if our government coddled and upgraded tourists and foreigners at every oppurtunity, while booting locals to the bottom of the barrel? Yet, after India, I think it's kind of nice. It shows some nice southern hospitality in my opinion. So we got upgraded to a car that had seat numbers and sleepers (although it was no AC-and that wasn't so much a problem, because it wasn't too hot, the real problem was the fact that all of the open windows in the car let in the contents of the Indian desert-it was dusty to say the least). But it was a cool experience, because while we weren't in the bare bones car, our car did have a lot fewer tourists and a lot more actual Indians. Once again, Lucy, Kevin and I learned what it must feel like to be a celebrity. After the first hour or so of the ride I got used to everyone on the entire train staring at us when they walked by. But the coolest part of the ride was meeting the couple who were seated across from us. They got on a few stops after us, a youngish looking man with dark features and a very pretty younger looking woman with a beauitful sari. I remember watching them, and one of my first impressions was how in love they looked. I wish I had a picture of this woman's smile when she looked at her husband. It was the quintessintial, absolutely, 100%, completely in love kind of smile. It was unbelievably sweet. After a little while, our two parties struck up a conversation. The man and Kevin hit it off particularly well. Indian men everywhere seemed to love Kevin. I think they were all impressed and intrigued by his height. We found out the man was a lawyer (that meant there were three lawyers total in our little space on the train-I seem to find myself surrounded by lawyers a lot in life). He told us about his brother in DC. We told him about where we had been in India and where we were going. We found out that his wife was a teacher. And somehow the conversation turned and we found out that this beautiful husband and wife were the product of an arranged marriage. I was stunned. It's one of things you hear about India, one of the examples of its backwardness, but it wasn' t something I could ever really wrap my head around. It just was so different from all of our concepts of love and marriage here in the US. In my mind I linked arranged marriages with unhappiness, with commanding husbands and meek, timid wives. Yet this couple were none of those things. They were happy. You could look at them from a hundred miles away and be able to tell that, in the way she looked at him or the way he looked at her, in the way she rested her head in his lap half way through the trip. It was one of those moments where your conceptions of something are just blown to bits. Now, I know that not all arranged marriages are going to be like this one, and it would be just as naive of me to think they're all happy and perfect as it would be for me to think they're all horrible. But as we talked to this couple about their arranged marriage, about how the people in their lives who knew them best were responsible for finding them a match, about how they had met before the wedding and gotten to know each other and that nothing was forced or rushed, well it would have been impossible for me to hold onto my judgements about that aspect of Indian culture. It's so easy to get on a pedestal and judge other cultures for what we percieve as being undemocratic or close minded, but until you've quite literally sat across from someone from one of those cultures and heard them explain it, then I think the pedestal needs to be stowed away.

So after our illuminating and very dusty train ride, we arrived in Jodhpur. It was already dark, but as we sped away from the train station (of course in an auto rickshaw), I could already tell that I was in a much bigger city than Jaisalmer, but still not in a place as sprawling and insane as Dehli. After a few minutes, the roads started to narrow and we started going uphill, and I could tell we were getting more into an old town kind of area. We pulled into a little cul-de-sac, and once the herd of cows cleared (I am telling you these bovine menaces are EVERYWHERE), we saw our nice little hotel. I wish I could remember the name, because this hotel was just so awesome, with an incredibly kind and helpful staff. After six, dusty hours on a train, all we really wanted was some food and a cold beer, so we climbed up a very steep flight of stairs to the hotel's rooftop restaurant. And even through the darkness, I was stunned by what I saw. High above us, almost on top of us, was this enormous fort erupting from the rock and stone beneath it. It towered in the true sense of the word. We weren't at the highest point in the town, but even the houses on the higest elevation, directly beneath the fort, were just dwarfed by this thing. A giant, vertical cliff rose straight up from the ground, and perched atop this cliff was just a maze of walls and towers and turrets or whatever the things in forts are called. We all stood, dumbstruck, for a few solid minutes, just craning our heads upwards to take in the sheer size of the thing, how it seemed impossibly far away in height but also impossibly close-this massive piece of God and man made rock looming above the winding town beneath it. After we picked our jaws off the floor, we sat, ordered some yummy food and the requisite Kingfisher beer, and surveyed the world around us. Like Jaisalmer, Jodphur seemed to be a city of rooftops. Spread out around us was seemingly an entire population living outside underneath the stars. There were couches on roofs, televisions on roofs, babies on roofs, parties on roofs. The obvious reason was because it was so much cooler out on a roof than it was inside, but part of me suspects that the people of Jodhpur, even after living their entire lives in its shadow, just couldn't get enough of that view.

(Disclaimer: I did not take this photo. I know this might be a little on the obvious side considering most of you know I don't zip around in a helicopter or have the gift of flight-but thought I'd make sure since all of the other India pictures are indeed my own, unless otherwise stated. I put this one up here because more than any of my own photos, it shows how this fort absolutely towers over the little blue town beneath it)

So after a refreshing night of sleep in our giant room, we set off to take in the sights of Jodhpur-well at least we set off after spending our first hour of the day in an internet cafe trying to book trains, planes etc. and the second hour of the day in a travel agent's office waiting for their snails pace internet to secure us a flight home from Manali later in our trip. Sidenote: without question the most arduous, most tedious, most difficult part of the whole trip was when we had to actually sit down and book things-internet everywhere is interminably slow-like early 90s internet was just invented slow. Plus a lot of travel in India can't be booked online, which means calling places or going in person. It's all an ordeal. In my experience the hardest parts about traveling are the times when things that you've grown accusmted to being easy prove to be extremely involved and difficult in a foreign setting. I can't tell you how many hours we wasted looking for internet cafes, trying to go online in internet cafes, searching our guide book for prices and fares, etc. and etc. So note to self for the future-book as much as possible ahead of time. End sidenote. So after all of that we made our way up to Jodhpur's main attraction-the fort. As you can see in the pictures-this fort is absolutely massive. It's not inhabited like Jaisalmer's fort so the whole thing is basically one big museum, but the coolest, most living, breathing alive kind of museum you can imagine. You walk around and you feel like you're completely transformed to a different time. Like in Jaisalmer the fort is where the maharajah's hung out. I'd heard of maharajah's before, mainly in Disney movies about little princesses, but I had no idea that the entire institution of maharajah's in India is still going. It's sort of like in England where it's basically in title only (India being a democracy and all-autonomous kingdoms with their own rulers would sort of disrupt that process), but from what I saw, these rulers still live very grandly-albeit not in giant forts towering over cities. So we walked around for a good few hours on our little audio tour in the fort-climbing up stairs and down winding stone ramps, and everything about this place was fascinating. The audio guide talked about how dozens of armies had tried to invade the fort but how none had ever succeeded, despite using stampeding elephants to try and break down the walls. I also learned about the very sad and very awful custom of bride burning which had gone on in this area until way too recently. The last bride to have burned herself-bedecked in finery and painted in saffron-she left handprints in the walls of the fort as she walked toward her death. Those prints are still there today. From what I saw in India, museums aren't as prevalent as in some places in the West-or at least museums in the way we know them. There aren't a lot of huge, modern buildings filled with huge spaces filled with cultural and historical treasures. But in India it doesn't seem very necessary to go to a museum in order to be transported to the past. In places like Jodhpur it's simply alll around you. You can't help but breathe it in.

After the fort we spent a few hours wandering around the city which is filled with stands and markets selling everything you can imagine-from camel leather shoes to exotic spices to crispy fried dough things sprinkled in sugar. I made my first real Indian purchase-a beautiful orange bedspread-handsewn by women in the region and emrboidered in the traditonal Rahjastani style-with tiny rounds mirrors that make the whole blanket twinkle in the light. Textiles are huge in this area, and the emporium we went to is apparently a hot spot for American designers hoping to add some exotic spice to their collections. I can't blame them. These pieces of fabric are stunning, and I wish I had taken a picture of the upstairs room of this fabric emporium with its wall to wall textiles-bursts of deep purple and crimson and orange-a kaleidoscope of color and embroidery and detail.

Later that day when we were sweaty and tired from the sun and the walking and the shopping, we decided the best way to cap off a day in Jodhpur would be by paying a visit to the maharajah's mansion. According to the man who sold me a beautiful, handsewn blanket at one of the textile shops in the city, Richard Gere is a frequent visitor of the maharajah. And if Richard Gere gets to hang out there then why can't we? What's so cool about him huh? Plus there was the tiny fact that my sister had discovered in the guide book that a few decades ago the palace was divided in half and turned partly into a fancy hotel with a fancy restuarant. And if we weren't good enough to dine with Indian royalty then we were at least good enough to dine in proximity to it. So off we went, away from the town and up some more winding desert hills (the landscape of Jodhpur was very rocky and hilly) and we arrived at this enormous, well, palace. I couldn't call it a house or a hotel even though it was in fact both. It could be called nothing else but a palace. We took a cursory lap in the "museum" where we were led around the whole time by a man who was apparently speaking English but who could have been speaking Swahili for all we understood him. It was a museum in name but really nothing more than a couple of rooms dedicated to showing how cool the current maharajah is (and how much he loves polo). The museum was just for show though because the real reason anyone would come to the palace was for the vicarious thrill of dining like a royal. After assuring the hostess that we would pay the $50 per person minimum in order to eat there (to keep away the riff raff from dirtying the maharajah's home of course), we were led to our table outside. We sat down at our table which was covered in the crispest white linens and the shiniest and finest glass and silverware. And despite the fact that I was dressed in cargo pants, tennis shoes and a baggy white shirt-well darned if I didn't feel like I was living in colonial era Indian splendor. A serene vista stretched in front of us-the grounds of the palace with beautiful gardens and peacocks milling about-all surrounded by the endless orange of the desert hills. Men in immaculately pressed white coats, crisp white turbans and spotless gloves soon descended upon us for our orders-and as I sat sipping my ice cold Kingfisher beer (out of a chilled glass!) I couldn't help but think how surreal the whole thing was after the hectic, messy bustle of life in cities I had visited thus far-beautiful but surreal. We never did catch a glimpse of a royal (something tells me the palace is not their only home), but fifty dollars was worth it for an evening of absolute peace and calm. Plus the hotel (which is the only area of the palace where you can just mill about) was stunning-all shiny marble floors and dark wooden accents. I didn't go to India to be pampered, and I'd like to think that we were relatively frugal during our trip, but for one meal and for a few hours it was nice to use the exchange rate to our advantage and indulge in an evening that would have cost four times as much back home. And who doesn't want to pretend to live like a maharajah for a night?

We took a late train out of Jodhpur that night, and although our time there was brief-it definitely made an impression. Going back to what I talked about earlier, it's strange that such a tragedy happened in this place such a short time after I had left it. But although I have new, terrible images in my mind to associate with Jodhpur, I hope that the images I keep forever remain the good ones-a towering fort blotting out the night sky, a swath of blue houses contrasting so clearly with the tan of the natural world around them, market places bursting with leather and silk and cloth, the upstairs room at a fabric store where one by one the people who worked there laid out the most beautiful, most colorful, most intricate pieces of fabric I have ever seen in my life, the way the stone walls of a modern palace looked as we ate a beautiful meal underneath the setting sun. When we left Jodhpur, we also left Rahjastahn. I can only hope that it won't be the last time I set foot in that mythical, magical desert world.

No comments:

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...