I can see how India can be addicting. It’s like getting your first tattoo and then wanting to get more and more. There’s something about this country that’s so alluring and magical that it makes you feel like you’re delving deeper into the core of human existence with every passing day. It’s so raw and unapologetic here, like a once stunningly beautiful, old woman past her prime who doesn’t care what other people think of her anymore. The history, spirituality and richness of culture in India is powerful. It grips onto you and holds on tight, nearly suffocating you in its wrath. Everything that is possible in the human experience occurs in India. Over the past 7 weeks I’ve seen dead bodies being being carried down the street and then burned at the river, people drinking out of the water that said bodies were being burnt in, I’ve been attacked by a cow, warded off monkeys, bowed my head to countless gods and watched people dance wildly in the middle of the street during wedding processions. The circle of life- all of the pain and brilliance of living are inescapable in India. Despite the contagiousness of this country, there are also a lot of things that are hard to get used to. The extreme poverty, and the way that women are viewed here is sometimes difficult to see. On most days I’m skeptical of everyone. It’s strange to rarely see women on the streets here, but instead to be greeted by a troupe of men lining the streets, with their eyes glued on you as you walk past. I am now able to understand why some things have lasted for as long as they have here. India is like a big, messy, beautiful ball of colorful yarn that although tangled, still draws you in and makes you wonder exactly how it works.
After the meditation course a couple of weeks ago I took a train in the evening from Jaipur to Jodhpur. Jodhpur is deemed the blue city as some of the buildings in the old town are painted blue in the color of the brahman caste. The area is also called Marwar (the land of death) because of the climate and environment. I got picked up from the train station by Imran, a very tall, lanky, 22 year old gymnast who was the owner of the guest house I was staying at. That night I rode on the back of a motorcycle for the first time, trying to stay balanced despite the weight of my 30 pound pack on my back. It was a bit scary going down the narrow, winding streets of the town at night as we swerved past cows and stray dogs.
On my first full day I walked to Mehangarh, a 14th century fort that towers over the city. Jodhpur reminded me a bit of Athens, Greece, with the fort similar to the acropolis that overlooks the rest of the city. Mehangarh was one of my favorite forts that I visited in Rajasthan. Many of the rooms were magnificently maintained, with stained glass windows and artifacts ranging from textiles to Rajasthani paintings. The fort is still run by the royal family, which gave it a more informative view of the history of Jodhpur as well as the significance of the royal family today. One of the walls of the fort included the handprints of some of the widows of the kings prior to committing sati, or throwing themselves on their husband’s funeral pyre and committing suicide.
While I was there I also visited Jaswant Thada, a white marble mausoleum for the maharaja Jaswant Singh II. Positioned in the midst of an arid landscape and overlooking a lake, it was an absolutely gorgeous vision. I also spent much of my time weaving throughout the bazaars, as Jodhpur is known for its textiles, spices and teas.
Jodhpur was one of my favorite cities that I visited in India. I would roam around the city for several hours taking pictures of the blue buildings. It was a compact city so I was able to access everything by walking which gave me a more intimate view of the area. I was able to dodge kids’ cricket balls or peep into the houses where women were cleaning clothes.
Imran, the owner of the guest house, was quite a character. I and another girl did yoga on the rooftop one evening and afterwards while we were eating dinner, Imran told us stories about his life in Jodhpur. He told us that he had been dating a girl for five years, but that she is a Hindu and he is a Muslim. His parents always told him that it was impossible to marry her, but he proposed to her anyway. Three months ago they surreptitiously married and had planned on running away on Valentine’s day so that they could live their lives together. However, on February 13th, he was taken to the police station where he was met by the girl and her parents. The parents claimed that he had forced her to marry him and that he was planning on kidnapping the girl and taking her far away from their family. Apparently the fear of disgracing her family encouraged the girl to corroborate her parents’ story. The police tore up their marriage certificate and he received threats from other Hindus in the community. He hasn’t seen the girl since and now feels resigned. Imran told his parents that he would do whatever they wanted from then on and that they could arrange a marriage for him. He’s supposed to be getting married in one year once his family finds a suitable wife for him. It seems that arranged marriages are still the norm in India. I had assumed that they were outdated, but most people I talked to explained that it was simply an expectation in life, as inescapable as becoming an adult or getting a job. Surprisingly, most people I talked to didn’t seem to have strong opinions either way about arranged or love marriages. However, not getting married wasn’t an option because it would bring disgrace to the family. Although love marriages are becoming more common, it seems that marrying outside of one’s caste still causes some strife in the family although it is permitted, but marrying a Muslim if you are a Hindu is strictly forbidden. I don’t know what I would do if I had such intense familial obligations set on me.
After a few days in Jodhpur I took a train to Jaisalmer and went on a camel safari on my second day there. Although I had intended on going by myself, at the last minute the man who booked the tour for me decided to come along. Although Babu was slightly annoying (but harmless), I was glad to have him there as I think that I would have felt slightly more uncomfortable being out in the desert by myself. A driver picked us up in the town center in the afternoon and we we drove to various locations including Kuldhara, an empty village that was abandoned 200 years ago, apparently when the minister at the time wanted to marry a beautiful Brahman woman from the village. The village leader met with the leaders from the other 84 connected villages and they all decided that she couldn’t marry the minister because she was of a high caste and he was a lower caste(despite his political prowess). Because the minister was powerful, everyone decided to leave the villages before he became aware that the beautiful girl was missing. Kuldhara was one of the 84 villages that were supposedly abandoned during this event. In the town there were a lot of brick buildings in ruin that looked quite new. When I remarked to Babu that the ruins didn’t look very old he confessed that many of the ruins were added to the village 10 years ago and are interspersed between the authentic, 200 year old ruins. He explained that the village was recreated to give tourists an idea of how people lived 200 years ago. I felt cheated when I found this out- I wish that the tourism board had kept things authentic.
Afterwards we drove to the Lukmana sand dunes where we met our camel man and Rocket, my camel, at the edge of the desert. The camel man was a small, very dark-skinned man with an all-white tunic and turban and a bright pink scarf wrapped around his neck. The color combination was so delightful against the backdrop of the desolate sand dunes. It was a bit alarming when Rocket stood up so quickly after I sat on the saddle. I don’t think I realized just how tall he was! We rode through the desert for about 1 1/2 hours and it was actually a relatively peaceful ride. Initially I gripped onto the handle of the saddle tightly until I felt a bit safer and realized that it was actually quite stable on top of Rocket. It was so fun riding on top of the camel, looking out at the desert and the increasingly darkening sky. At times it was very windy so I had to close my eyes to keep the sand from getting in them and I simply allowed my hair to cover my face without pushing it away. I felt the steady sway of the ride and enjoyed the utter peace and quiet of the surrounding area. Towards the end of the ride it started to rain, which nobody was thrilled about, but luckily I packed my rain jacket because I’d read that it often rains in the desert at night during the summer. Babu thought that I was a genius for that move. Rocket moaned and began to shake the rain off of him when we stopped, which made me squeal in fright until the camel man and Babu calmed down the camel and me. I wonder what Rocket thought of me sitting on top of him.
After riding through the dunes we finally reached the huts where the guide’s family lived. He had a few small, brick huts with straw thatched roofs and a herd of goats. His family was very sweet and cute. We ate a dinner of dal and chapati and drank some chai on a cot next to the goats. After dinner Babu and I took a short walk on the sand dunes. It was so peaceful in the desert: we could see the blinking red lights from the windmills off in the distance and we could hear the drums from another camp nearby. The camel guide set up our beds outside of the hut as it was too hot and stuffy inside. I was worried that it would start to rain again, but the sky soon started to clear up and we were able to see the stars. It was nice to sleep under the stars and the air felt so cool and refreshing. However, I had a hard time sleeping because the dogs, camels and desert cows were roaming around so every time I heard one fumbling with something I would jolt up from my bed. On a couple of occasions the cows got quite close to our cots which was frightening me because I’ve been a bit apprehensive around cows since one charged at me at the Vipassana center.
In the morning the camel guide made a breakfast of boiled eggs, toast and chai for us. We then got on the camel and rode him back over the sand dunes to where we’d gotten dropped off the day beforehand. Being out in the desert and riding the camel was one of the most unforgettable experiences I had in India.
The next day I took a 15 hour bus ride to Bundi. I will be glad when I don’t have to take anymore long, hot, bumpy overnight bus rides anymore. Initially I had planned on going to the little city earlier on in my trip(as suggested by Bob, a musician I had met in a cafe in Kolkata), but after going to the meditation center I decided to cut it out of my itinerary. I had wanted to continue making my way south to Goa, but I had heard that the monsoon season had already started there. Since I had some more time, I decided to check out that magical little city that I’d heard so much about.
I arrived at Haveli Elephant Stables around 6:30 a.m. and the owner let me in. He said that he hadn’t had any guests in over two weeks because it was the lowest season in tourism. The elephant stables were connected to the palace and once housed the royal elephants. Circular structures posted in the ground that were once used to tie up the elephants were still present in the courtyard. Throughout the few days that I was there I rented a bike and rode around the peaceful, beautiful little city. It had many more blue buildings than Jodhpur, as many people there were Brahmans.
The next day I visited the Bundi Palace, which was right next to the Haveli where I was staying. It looked like it was straight out of a dream, they appeared like honeycombs built onto the rock face. The palace was constructed in 1631 and had a very nice courtyard that led up to several balconies and columns that had black elephants on the top. Many of the rooms also had many miniature, colorful paintings depicting royal life and scenes of the gods. The traditional Rajasthani artwork is very colorful and full of detail. The artists would use squirrel tails as brushes, allowing the figures to be meticulously drawn. Many of the rooms also offered great views of the blue city and the lake beneath it. There were only a few people touring the palace which, along with the abandoned nature of the cracked mirrors and bats that inhabited the rooms, gave it a majestic and unexplored feel.
After touring the palace I walked up the same steep path to Taragarh, a fort nestled in the Aravalli hills that overlooked the palace. Before I got to the gate of the path leading to the fort I took a few deep breaths and clenched the big stick that I was given by Raj, the owner of the guesthouse, to ward off any monkeys on the path. I’d read in my guidebook that the macaque monkeys near the fort could be quite aggressive. Before I set out for the afternoon Raj directed me on how to use the stick if the monkeys were getting too close: he swung the large bamboo stick around and yelled ‘EY EY!’
As I was walking up the path I encountered a very friendly dog who lived at the palace and had very cutely assumed the position of guard of the palace. He followed me around for most of the afternoon and started to join me for the hike up to the fort. I was grateful that he was there- he gave me more confidence. I whispered to him: ‘will you stay with me, buddy?’ A group of Indian men who had been resting near the gate stared at me amusingly as I prepared for my journey. As I walked up the steep path I saw a macaque peer out from behind the door. I saw another as I climbed up the stairs and I swung my stick at him for him to clear the path. The dog remained a step ahead of me. As we reached the other side of the path beyond the gate, we were surrounded by an entire troupe of monkeys- about 20 of them. My heart was beating fast. There were no monkeys beyond the beginning of the path so I just had to get through the first little stretch. I started to walk faster, but the monkeys were visibly upset by the presence of the dog. Some of the monkeys barred their teeth so I stomped the stick on the ground which deterred most of them. We continued walking down the path, my heart beating even faster. When we walked past some columns with a terrace behind it, a big macaque jumped out almost as it was going to attack the dog. I screamed and jumped back, off of the path. The dog then started barking loudly at the monkeys. Five of them jumped to the edge of the path and barred their teeth at the dog. He continued to bark at them and I continuously stomped my big stick screaming: ‘GO AWAY!’ I gripped onto the bamboo stick so tightly that it cut my palm and it started bleeding slightly. The entire situation felt so primal. My adrenaline was through the roof. One of the men who was lounging on the other side of the gate opened the door when he heard all of the commotion-more out of curiosity about the spectacle than an intention to intervene. He watched as the dogs and the monkeys had a stand-off and I was caught somewhere in between. The dog eventually just walked back down the hill and I was left alone with the monkeys. I was frightened to go any further so I scurried back down the hill where I’d come from as I let out a whimper.
When I was back on the other side of the gate the men and I let out a nervous laugh. I felt defeated because I’d paid money to go into the fort and I couldn’t even see it. The men reluctantly joined me on my journey back up the fill. The last guy in the group picked up a big stone to ward off the monkeys if need be. Without the dog we got through the gate without a problem. They looked at us as if they didn’t recognize us from the incident just a few minutes beforehand. I’m so glad that I overcame my fear of the monkeys and made it up to the fort because it was amazing. It was a humongous, unkempt fort from the 1300s covered with overgrown vegetation in the middle of the Aravalli mountains. My camera ran out of battery before I had gotten up there, which I was actually grateful for because I felt totally in the moment as I played around the old abandoned fort, jumping from room to room. Next to the fort there were a couple of gargantuan step wells that were (no exaggeration) hundreds of feet deep. They had stairs leading down to them and now dried out, cracked earth at the bottom. Playing around in the totally abandoned fort with no one else around was so magical! I climbed to the top of the fort and was awarded a view of the rolling mountains and Kipling lake as well as the long road that I had biked down the day beforehand. It was such a beautiful image: a side of India that I hadn’t seen yet. It was at that moment that I decided that Bundi was my favorite city in India that I’d been to during my trip. Much to my pleasant surprise, when I made my way back down to the gate there were no monkeys to be seen.
For the rest of my time in Bundi I rode a bike around the city, visited the temples, snapped pictures of the blue buildings and the street life and visited some of the step wells. Bundi has 60 very deep step wells scattered throughout the city, but most of them are dried up and polluted.
After leaving Bundi I took a night bus to Udaipur. I wasn’t able to sleep much on the night buses, so most of my trip for the last couple of weeks was run on lack of sleep but eagerness to see as much as I could before I left. After getting to my guest house early in the morning I visited Jagdish temple, which was a Vishnu temple built in 1651. Afterwards I walked to the city palace, which was Rajasthan’s largest palace that overlooked Lake Pichola. The palace had many terraces that overlooked the lake and offered a great view. Although the palaces had many impressive rooms that were heavily decorated with traditional paintings, mirrors and were painted in delightful colors, I was honestly getting sick of visiting palaces in Rajasthan by the time that I got to Udaipur. Rajasthan truly is the land of kings. It’s like visiting Game of Thrones.
For the rest of my time in Udaipur I took a boat ride on the lake, got a traditional ayurvedic massage, and I hung out with Anja (the German woman I had met in Varanasi a month beforehand). It was nice to tour around with someone else- I think that the next time that I come to India I will definitely either come during the tourist season so that I can meet other people to travel with, or I’ll visit with someone else. While we were in Udaipur the supporters of a corrupt political official were striking because of charges against him so the entire city was shut down to avoid any violent protests. The workers at a travel agency mentioned that they were going to a park near a lake with friends to have a picnic so Anja and I decided to join them. About 10 of us, including Anja and I, three shopkeepers and one of the shopkeepers’ family all piled in a van and made the journey up to the lake. The road was quite windy and the driver was driving very erratically so we had to stop the van four times so that three of the women in the family and the youngest son could vomit. We arrived at the park which had a small, polluted lake that a few people were swimming and bathing in. The women waded in the water in their full clothes while the men stripped down to their underwear. The women had forgotten their bathing suits, which were apparently long shorts or a dress that came down below the knees. I imagine it to be similar to the bathing suits that people wore during the late 19th century. Again, I was reminded of how glad I am that I grew up in the west. The group seemed to have everything in the day planned out and it seemed natural how separated the men and the women were throughout all of it. The women prepared lunch while the men lounged and ate snacks on a separate mat. After lunch was cooked, it was first served to the women on a small mat as the men sat on another mat. After we finished eating we cleaned up and the men had their turn on the small mat and ate food while we rested on another. It was amazing how integral the separation was even between family and close friends of the family. The women were so sweet and easy going. Even after they threw up, they were all smiles. It was a good, full day and it was nice to spend time hanging out with locals and seeing their customs.
A couple of days ago I took a night bus from Udaipur to Mumbai, which is where I will be flying out to go back to America in just a few hours. Mumbai is an interesting city and I actually wish that I could have spent a couple of more days here. On my first day I took a walking tour as suggested by my lonely planet guide and walked around most of Colaba and the Fort area, which is where many of the colonial buildings are located. Buildings with the most glorious, regal facades can be used for something as mundane as a train station or a post office. It has been surprisingly refreshing to be in a more western city after spending the past month in Rajasthan. Walking down the street I don’t have to bypass cow poop and I can escape the heat by sitting in an AC Starbucks! I deserved that green tea frappucino. Yesterday I met up with Yasmin, an Indian girl from Switzerland who I met at the Vipassana center in Jaipur. She’s been traveling throughout India for the past six months, which must have been an interesting journey for her.
We started off the day walking around Kala Goda, a part of town with many art galleries, and visited the contemporary art gallery, Jehangir. Afterwards we went to Mahalaxmi Dhobi Ghat, which is where most of the clothes in the city are washed. Many of the clothes are also from the factories and are washed before they make their way to countries like America. The ghat was in the slums and for a small fee that went to the workers for celebrations, we were able to step inside and take some photos. It was so fascinating to observe a place where people have been washing clothes for centuries. I felt voyeuristic taking photos of them, but no one seemed to mind and they were appreciative of the small amount that I gave to them anyway. Later on that evening we went to Haji Ali Dargah, a 14th century mosque on an islet in the Arabian sea. Although the inside of the mosque wasn’t very impressive, the area surrounding the mosque was an impressive amalgamation of scenes: Hindus and Muslims walked up the promenade which was lined by children and handicapped beggars. Next to the mosque was a landfill with goats roaming around and crows feasting. Yasmin and I sat in silence as we watched the sunset by the edge of the ocean. Little kids in their best outfits dipped their feet in the water, trying not to get the rest of their clothes wet. With one swish of the tide everyone’s sandals on a rock were swept away with the current. Everyone let out a squeal and rushed to retrieve their shoes. It felt like a good way to say goodbye to India.
In just a few hours I’ll get on a plane to go back to America. It feels bittersweet to leave Asia. I wish that I had more time to travel- at least another year. Maybe someday. I’m so glad that I got a chance to visit India before returning to the states. This has definitely been one of the most memorable and interesting trips of my life and I can’t wait to return someday (hopefully sooner rather than later)!