Monday, December 7, 2009
I am writing to say that I'm going into hibernation for a week or two and I don't think I'll be updating the blog until I leave India on the 18th.
Right now I'm in incredibly beautiful Goa, just 1 minute from an amazing beach!!
I have so much more to write about, but I'm just a bit tired of writing for the time being.
Thanks to everyone who told me they enjoyed reading this blog. I enjoyed writing it!
Friday, December 4, 2009
I have posted these in chronological order, beginning with a clip from the Nepal/India border. Once I have some more time, I will upload some videos from Nepal as well.
1. As I have written before, Nepali buses are quite chaotic and are often packed with passengers beyond the realm of safe or sane. Indian buses are marginally more organized, but not by much. When we arrived at the border on the Nepali side, the bus leading us to the final border crossing was packed beyond belief. The conductor told us to hop on the roof, or wait for the next bus. We hopped on the roof.
2. Our train to Varanasi arrived at 4:45 in the morning. Here is a clip of us driving through the city during the early morning, still half asleep.
3. That very same morning, we took a sunrise boat ride along the Ganga River. Among the many things we saw was an early morning yoga class taking place on the ghats.
4. These boys were playing cricket on a dusty construction site.
5. Here is a clip of the river worship ceremony in Varanasi. As you can see, it is quite noisy and overwhelming. There are also many people watching from boats along the River Ganga.
6. The Ganga Arti ceremony is a spectacle in every sense of the word. Here you can see the sadhus doing what they do best, which is to sit around and be holy. You can also see the tourists doing what they do best, which is to take photos and gawk.
7. The Golden Temple of Amritsar is by far my favorite place in India. This first clip shows what the temple looks like from across the reflecting pool. You can also hear the beautiful prayer hymns that are projected throughout the temple grounds. When I filmed this clip, I was unaware that the music was being performed live inside the very temple I was filming.
8. Here is a brief clip of devotees walking through the gate that leads to the main temple. Again, you can hear the prayer hymns in the background.
9. Sikhism's holiest book is called the Guru Granth Sahib. Every single night, a group of volunteers will carry this book from the Golden Temple to another room where it resides safely until the next morning. This ceremony is very interesting because it is performed organically in that there is no performance or set time line of actions. Everyone is allowed to participate, and everyone wants to catch a glimpse of the holy book.
10. The langar is the free communal eating hall that is found in every gurdwara, or Sikh temple. As you can imagine, many thousands of devotees eat at this hall every single day at the Golden Temple. Here are two short videos of the langar. The first shows the dish washing area, and the second shows the beginning, where you pick up your silverware and plate before entering the hall.
12. Near Amritsar is the Wagah border crossing that separates Pakistan and India. Every night, there is a ridiculous ceremony where the guards from each country march around and try to intimidate one another. Patriots from each country come and cheer along. Here is a brief snippet from this ceremony.
13. In Rishikesh, we were lucky enough to catch two free concerts. The first concert featured the sitar. This guy was a real shredder. He and his son both played very fast. Here are two videos of them shredding.
14. More shredding.
15. The next night we saw a concert which featured the tabla. This guy's fingers may have moved even faster than the fingers of the sitar player the night before. I also really like the odd melody that went along with the tabla playing. The instrument on the left is called the harmonium, and is similar in many ways to the accordion.
16. Here is a close up of more tabla playing.
17. Here is a clip from the ganga arti ceremony in Haridwar. This ceremony was quite different from the one in Varanasi, as you can see.
18. Before we saw the river ceremony, we watched monkeys being monkeys. Why are monkeys always up to no good!?
19. Delhi is a very busy city. Here is a video of me walking down the street.
20. Agra is also a very busy city! Here is me walking through the bazaar. Note the pooch standing on the roof..
21. We took an overnight train from Agra to Bundi. When I woke up in the morning, the door of the train was wide open. I peered outside and saw the sunrise. Pretty!
22. I think this is my favorite video. It is me wandering through the crumbling fort in Bundi. It is called the Star Fort. At the end of the clip you can see all of Bundi below.
23. Bundi had a very serious wild monkey problem. Here are some more monkeys up to no good on the lawn of our guest house.
And that's it for now! I have many more videos to upload from Nepal. Hopefully I can get them up soon!
Tuesday, December 1, 2009
Our next destination after Bundi was the equally small and purportedly "laid back" city of Pushkar, which is half a day's travel northwest of Bundi. I was a bit sad to leave Bundi. From the decaying palace and fort to our stilted but charming conversations with Rinku, Bundi really hit the spot for me. It won't fade from memory like some of the other places I've been to. And yet, by the time we arrived in Pushkar after a forgettable five hour bus ride through the countryside, I was tired and a bit unhappy.
For starters, I had failed to defeat a three day old head cold. My head was cloudy and my nose was sore from all the blowing I had done. But it wasn't just my body that was ailing. It was the mental exhaustion that was really getting to me. My enthusiasm was dwindling. The months of intense travel had finally caught up to me. India had finally caught up to me.
I am fully aware that I've done my fair share of complaining on this blog and indeed, there are quite a few things about India that drive me crazy. The lack of public trash cans would just be one thing. The way men constantly leer at Mimi as we walk down the street would be another. I could go on. But deep down, I know that I love India. I love the food and I love the smiles. I love the mindless conversations we have with people on trains. I love the Golden Temple and I love the steep, winding streets of Darjeeling. And yet, the ugliness of India had slowly but surely overpowered its magnificent charm. With Thanksgiving on the horizon and no immediate plans to return home, I began to feel quite homesick.
Fully aware of my rapidly waning enthusiasm for travel in India, I decided to turn the two days we had in Pushkar into recuperation days, both for my body and my mind. It turned out there wasn't a whole lot to see or do in Pushkar anyways, so I had picked a good city to lay low and recharge my batteries. The main attraction in Pushkar is its central lake. Unfortunately, a bad monsoon has left the lake nearly dried to the bone. At this point the term lake is far too generous; it's really more of an oversized puddle now.
Anyways, for the next two days, I took it very easy. We found a wonderful organic cafe called Honey and Spice and ate there three times. While we weren't at this cafe, I blogged, sat on the roof of our hotel, and played chess with Mimi. I also took an obligatory peek inside Pushkar's only Sikh gurdwara. As I washed my feet before entering, a sikh from Vancouver commented to me, "Looks like you've done this before." I suppose I have. The temple was quite beautiful from the outside, but was virtually empty on the inside and didn't have any live prayer singing.
It is wedding season in India right now, so while walking around Pushkar we ran into several wedding parades. The parade consists of a marching band of men who haphazardly play songs as they march through town. The men are followed by the women, who carry large jugs on top of their heads. I'm not entirely sure of the significance of the jugs, but I had seen dozens of pictures from Rinku's wedding that documented this same ceremony. My favorite part of these ceremonies was the awful racket made by marching band's pianist, who invariably played a portable Casio that had been rigged up to a massive, ancient speaker system. Easily five times as loud as any other instrument, the dreadful tone of the piano was made worse by the constantly flubbed notes that resulted from the its minuscule keys.
During one of our mindless strolls down the main tourist drag, I purchased a book called Shantaram and shortly after began devouring its 900+ pages. The book, written by the generically named Gregory David Roberts, had been recommended to me by an Australian man named Andy who was also staying at the RN Haveli in Bundi. A real character, Andy was as optimistic as he was talkative. Born in Tasmania, Andy was a former heroin addict who now works in an opal mine somewhere on the Australian outback. He had traveled extensively through India and was full of good stories and information. Holding a tattered copy of the novel he found in the guest house's common room, Andy lectured me on the beauty and inspiration to be found in Shantaram.
Andy was right. I've found the book to be incredibly inspiring. It is the eloquent, poignant and often thrilling autobiography of an Australian man who escaped from a maximum security prison, fled to Bombay on a fake New Zealand passport, and fell in love with India. He had been in jail for armed robbery, crimes he committed as a heroin addict. (Perhaps Andy felt a kinship to the author?) Roberts is a fabulous writer. His detailed descriptions of Bombay and his unbridled love for India and its people have single-handedly rekindled my excitement for travel in India. So what if India doesn't have trashcans! Who cares if I have a runny nose? I'm in India, damn it. Carpe Diem!
Our next stop after Pushkar was to be Jaisalmer, a starkly beautiful city in the far west of Rajasthan that is built entirely out of golden sandstone. To get from Pushkar to Jaisalmer, we had to first take a short bus ride over a small mountain to Ajmer, a much larger town that sits in the valley next to Pushkar. From Ajmer we would then take a much longer bus to Jodhpur. From Jodhpur, we would then take an overnight train to Jaisalmer, which was scheduled to arrive at 5am the next morning. Travel day.
We said goodbye to the Everest Hotel in Pushkar and walked with our roly poly bags to the nearby bus stand. A young boy approached me and said, "Ajmer?" I nodded. "No bus now," he replied. "Have chai while you wait. Come." We didn't feel like tea, so I told him we'd just wait for the bus instead. He stared at me blankly for about five seconds, then pointed to a bus. "Bus to Ajmer. Leaving now!" I gave him a dismissive look and boarded the bus. Thanks kid!
The bus was quite crowded, but I managed to cram our embarrassingly large bags into the rear of the aisle and find us some seats. About halfway through the thirty minute trip, the man sitting in front of us asked me which country I was from. When I told him America he smiled and said, "Yay Obama!" I agreed. "What is the weather like in America?" He then asked.
The bus only cost seven rupees a piece, but it failed to drop us off at the connecting bus stand. It was too far to walk, so we made a quick prayer to the traffic gods and crawled into the rear, backwards facing seats of an already full shared auto rickshaw. The thin man sitting next to me awarded me with a half-smile as I jammed in beside him.
With our bags held crammed between our legs, we weaved through Ajmer's traffic without incident. Although now that I think about it, at one point, the auto was stopped at the rarest of Indian species, a traffic light. A man popped out of a nearby taxi and proclaimed, "I will take you to Jaipur in my taxi!" He remained unphased when I informed him that we weren't even going to Jaipur. "I have a taxi! Come with me!" Again, I told him no and waved my hands to physically express my decline. "Jaipur. Taxi." He repeated, with a little less enthusiasm. "No." I repeated. Did he not register the fact that I was already in a taxi and had clearly already determined my destination?Eventually the light changed and the man was forced to give up. You have to admire his persistence though.
We had just missed the previous bus to Jodphur when we arrived at Ajmer's shabby government bus stand. It took us a minute to figure out that we needed to buy tickets from a specific ticket counter. As I waited in line, a young man standing in front of me initiated conversation. "And what is your good name, sir?" I didn't sense a potential sales pitch in his voice or face, so I responded in a friendly manner. I learned that his name was Anand and he lived in a small city in between Ajmer and Jodphur. After we bought our tickets, he helped me find the correct bus. Sometimes, I had to remind myself, it's actually a good idea to talk to strangers at bus stations, even in India. We got great seats at the front of the bus next to some beautifully dressed ladies with two cute kids, the younger of which kept making adorable imitations of the crazy horns coming from the bus.
As we drove through the increasingly sparse landscape, I almost constantly read from the book Shantaram. It's the kind of book that makes you want to have as many conversations with complete strangers as possible. It makes you want to invite danger and abnormality into your travels.
While waiting at a bus stop about halfway through the journey, my renewed excitement for India was further enhanced by a wonderful interaction with a sweets baker who had caught our attention through the window of the bus. We were separated from him by about ten meters of hustle and bustle, but he managed to communicate with his face and hands that he was very happy to see us and that he wanted us to take a picture of him. He told his assistant to pose for the photo as well. As the bus was pulling out of the station, he sent his assistant after us and gave us a free sample of his product. It was a delicious sesame wafer.
The assistant is the smiling man in the blue shirt.
We arrived in Jodhpur three hours before the departure of our train and debated whether to walk or take an auto from the bus station to the train station. A nice young driver managed to convince us that walking would have been quite unpleasant. "Main road only! Only cars!" He was right, the walk would have been miserable. When we arrived at the station, we checked our bags into the coatroom, and then walked around the neighborhood. As we walked, we came across a street that was completely lined with little elevated cots, a few of which were inhabited by sleeping men. Apparently, the weather is so nice here that people managed to open public hotels for people who were waiting for a train. Sure beats sleeping on the floor of the train station.
We had a dinner of very heavy Rajastani curries at a place called the Mid Town Restaurant. It was very similar to several other places near train stations in that it had a very friendly staff and catered equally to locals and tourists. They had a great description of the place at the bottom of their menu:
The train ride to Jaisalmer went off without a hitch. We shared our section of berths with a Sikh family and two elderly Swedish tourists. The Swedish man had a hilariously incoherent and abrasive voice that was something like a cross between Dr. Strangelove and the character Meat Wad from Aqua Teen Hunger Force. When the Swedish man struggled to climb into his berth, he began babbling for assistance. It was only after the Sikh man pushed him up by his butt that the old Swede managed to get into position. Mimi and I struggled to contain our laughter.
We arrived at 5am the next morning and sleepily made our way over to a place called Hotel Renuka. I had called in advance and been told that arriving early would be no problem. But when we arrived, no one answered the hotel's buzzer. We waited a few minutes but still nobody came down to let us in. Finally, we gave up and looked for a new place. The nearest hotel was a place called Hotel Swastika. Hmm.
The swastika is one of Hinduism's most iconic symbols and swastikas can be found everywhere throughout India. Still, to name your guest house Hotel Swastika? Given how many Israeli tourists there are in India, it seemed like a questionable choice.
The man who opened the door was very kind but spoke little English. He managed to communicate to us that the place was full, but if we wanted to wait a few hours, a room would surely open up by morning. We didn't feel like wandering around anymore, so we settled in. The man set us up in a little open air veranda on the second floor. He brought us blankets and pillows to use while we waited for our room.
As tired as I was, I found my mind racing around in circles as I tried to fall back asleep. We have just under three weeks left in India. On December 18, Mimi is flying back to the States and I am flying to Hong Kong. I will then travel by to Yangshuo, where I begin teaching English on December 28. Mimi has been by my side for nearly four months straight, and to go back to China on my own felt daunting and overwhelming. And yet, I found myself quite excited by the prospect of settling down in Yangshuo and getting into a healthy routine.
Traveling has been great. This has been one of the most amazing and rewarding experiences of my life. But structure is definitely not a word I would associate with budget travel. I've had no guidelines, no deadlines, and no real commitment to anything other than exploration of the world. When I arrive in China, all that will change. I will have obligations. As I lay awake on the floor of Hotel Swastika at six in the morning, settling down in China didn't sound so bad.
Luckily, some people checked out early and we had our own room by 7am. Once inside our own room, I quickly fell back asleep for two or three hours. I woke up rested and relaxed. I was ready to check out Jaisalmer.
Jaisalmer is literally the last city at the edge of Western India. If you go any further west you will find nothing but desert until you hit Pakistan. As a result of its desolate location, Jaisalmer and its people project a powerful image of pride and hard work. The city had a marvelous desert vibe that distinguished it from the other cities we've been to, and at the heart of this image is the golden sandstone with which the city was built.
Looming above the city is Jaisalmer's beautiful fort and palace. Unlike the fort in Agra, which had become a museum, and unlike the fort in Bundi, which had been left to fall apart, Jaisalmer's palace and fort are still fully functioning. Jaisalmer's royal family still lives inside the palace and many of Jaisalmer's people still live within the walls of the fort.
Sadly, nearly everyone who lives inside the fort has turned to tourism as a source of income. As a result, it proved impossible to walk through the fort without a constant stream of harassment by shop owners and camel safari agencies. Still, to be able to walk through what is essentially a living museum was a great experience.
The absolute highlight of Jaisalmer, however, was a maze-like complex of seven Jain temples that sat within the walls of the fort. Jainism is a somewhat obscure religion that was founded around the same time as Buddhism. Jainism is a very austere religion that places a strong emphasis on respect for all living things and non-violence. What I did not know, however, was that Jains have historically been shrewd businessmen and are often among the wealthiest citizens in any given community. Consequently, ancient Jain temples are often quite lavish and very well preserved, such as the one in Jaisalmer.
The complex was simply amazing. Both the interior and exterior were covered in elaborate and detailed carvings. Made of the same beautiful sandstone that comprised the rest of the city, the temples organically blended in with the surrounding neighborhood. Designed with several open air courtyards, the temples were bathed in wonderful sunlight. And through it all, that unmistakable desert vibe made its presence felt. I don't know where the Indiana Jones movies were made, but they should have been filmed in these Jain temples. Here are a few pictures.
Beyond the fort and the palace, there wasn't a whole lot else to check out in Jaisalmer. On the second day, we saw some beautiful old traditional havelis and walked again through the fort. But for the most part, we just chilled out. We ended up having lunch with a solo British traveler named Darren who had been traveling for years. Earlier this year he spent five months in West Africa and had quite a few interesting stories to tell us. I also spent quite a bit of time reading my book.
Here are some pictures from around Jaisalmer, including some of the havelis.
Pooch with a snaggletooth.
Portraits of Rajput Kings.
For a bunch more pictures from around Jaisalmer, please check out the following two facebook albums:
Michael's Jaisalmer and Khuri Pictures
Mimi's Jaisalmer and Khuri Pictures
The next day we took a local bus to the small village of Khuri, which sits about an hour southwest of Jaisalmer. Khuri offers tourists a glimpse a village life and is also very close to a series of impressive sand dunes. I am still in Khuri as I write this and our time here has been wonderful. We have been staying in (literally) a hut at a place called Badal House, which is run by a gentle man named Badal Singh. He has been cooking amazing food for us and its been very relaxing. We are staying in the middle of these three huts:
Ceiling of the hut.
View from inside the hut.
Yesterday, we hiked out to the sand dunes. Most people go by camel, but I just don't feel comfortable riding a camel. I don't know what my problem is but riding a camel just seems incredibly unappealing to me. So we walked. Unfortunately it was a bit cloudy so we didn't have the full on sun and sand dune effect, but it was still a really cool experience. I had never seen a desert sand dune in person before. They are quite epic.
At one point, two young boys approached us and sang a "desert welcome song" for us and encouraged us to dance with them. We thanked them and gave them thirty rupees. In response, their leader said, "This is nothing! Every tourist is giving five hundred rupees!" Take it or leave it buddy. We also found a bunch of dung beetles. Here are some pics from the dunes.
photo by Mimi
photo by mimi.
And now I must confess that I am getting very tired of writing and must end it here. This evening we take another overnight train back to Jodhpur, where we will hang out for a few days before heading south. Check back soon, and hopefully there will be more!
Thursday, November 26, 2009
See my photos here
See Mimi's photos here
When we arrived at the train station in Agra, it looked no different than any of the other train stations we had been in. Like India itself, Indian train stations are crowded, dirty and chaotic, only more so. A trip to India simply wouldn't be complete without some train travel. The first thing you'll seen when you walk into the main terminal of a train station is hundreds of people sleeping under blankets on the concrete floor. Presumably, these people are waiting for their trains. Look to the left or the right, and you'll see dense, unruly lines of men trying to buy tickets from the ticket counter. To eliminate the threat of line-cutting, the men will stand unnaturally close to each other so that one man's chest will be touching the next man's back, and so on. I've waited in these lines a few times and it is not fun. Women simply don't use these lines, but Mimi just told me that they are allowed to cut this line, if they want to. I think normally the men just buy the tickets though.
Walk through the station a bit more and you'll find men selling chai, families saying their goodbyes through the train windows, crippled beggars yelling for money, and cows standing and doing nothing. Who knows what else you might see. Indian train stations are amazing places to people watch. Still, the experience is intense and we always keep our guard up when in a train station. The vague smell of urine that permeates Indian train stations only adds to this intensity. Agra Fort Railway Station fit the bill, but we were prepared. After all, this would be the seventh train we've taken in India.
For the most part, Mimi and I have been getting around India by taking overnight sleeper trains. They are efficient because you don't lose a whole day just sitting on a train. They also save you money because you don't have to pay for accommodation on the night you take the train. Up until this point, we had been taking 2AC class, which means that there are two tiers of bunks in each sector and that the cars are air-conditioned. 2AC carriages are very nice and the preferred choice of the Indian middle-class. Above 2AC is 1AC, which costs nearly double but awards you private sleeping quarters like you see on the trains in movies. Below AC2 is AC3, which is just like AC2, but has three tiers instead of two. Confused yet? And finally, at the bottom is Sleeper Class, in which you receive no bedding, no privacy curtain, and no air conditioning.
The train from Agra to Bundi was not on a main railway line. As a result, our only choice was to take the local train that was scheduled to take 12 hours to travel what an express train might complete in 7. But since it was an overnight train, we didn't mind the longer travel time. The only other problem was that because the train wasn't on a main line, the only class available was Sleeper Class. I was hesitant to take sleeper class for safety reasons. The air-conditioned chambers, because of their higher price, see a lot less theft than sleeper class. Also, you can't travel between classes on the train, so someone from Sleeper Class can't come into 2AC. But Mimi and I talked it over and we decided that Sleeper Class would be fine for one trip. How bad could it be? The price didn't hurt either. A trip that might cost $10 in 2AC will run you about $2 in Sleeper Class. Our Agra to Bundi tickets cost us the equivalent of $2.40 per ticket. Like I said, India is cheap.
As we waited on the platform for our train to Bundi, we ran into an English "bloke" who we had briefly spoken to on the train platform in Delhi the previous morning. Coincidentally, we were once again taking the same train as him. He was traveling alone and acted a bit nervous about it. He asked us lots of questions and even sort of clung on to us a bit. I didn't mind helping him out though. I thought everything was running smoothly when a train pulled up on the opposite platform just as our train was supposed to arrive. Was this our train? Had they switched platforms?
We asked around a bit, but surprisingly, no one seemed to be able help. This was abnormal. Indian people seemingly know everything about every train, and are always great help. Not this time though. To complicate matters, the train had come to a stop far past where we were standing on the platform, so we had to hustle down the platform to catch up with it. Unlike previous trains, there were no designations on the side of the cars, making it impossible to figure out which train this was. We finally made it to our assigned carriage and began inquiring if this was indeed the right train, but everyone was giving us a different answer or no answer at all.
In 2AC, all the Indians speak English really well and are more than happy to help us clumsy American tourists. But in Sleeper class, no one knew what the hell I was saying to them. As the train lurched and began to pull out of the station, I began to panic. Was this the right train? But then it stopped and waited some more. I jumped out onto the platform in search of concrete information. Why did this train have no number? All the other trains we'd taken were identified on the side of the cars by their number. Finally, I found a little sheet over paper that had been taped to the side of the car. Haldaghati Passenger. Sigh. We were on the right train.
Sleeper class is miserable for the simple reason that there are no rules. When we arrived at our seats, the floor was covered in a thick layer of peanut shells. This was in spite of the fact that Agra was the departing station. In other words, the Sleeper cars hadn't been cleaned since the last time the train was in use. I forgot about the peanut shells as soon as the stench of stale urine found its way directly into my nostrils. It didn't help that we were right at the end of the car, practically adjacent to the lavatory. If the floors hadn't been cleaned, I didn't even want to think about the bathrooms.
As we sat in the station, a rather rotund Indian woman leaned in between Mimi and myself and began chatting with her relatives who were standing outside on the platform. This conversation continued for upwards of ten minutes, while this woman's posterior bounced directly in my face. Mimi and I laughed it off. After a brief delay, the train finally got on its way. It wasn't until three hours later, however, that a conductor came through to check our tickets. In the mean time, countless Indians had hopped on the train for a stop or two and then hopped off. They clearly had no tickets, and either sat in the aisles or shared seats with other paying passengers. Families of 10 were squeezed into areas that should have slept 6. Men kept putting their bags on our seats as if we weren't even there.
The strange thing about the experience was that no one was acting like this chaos was out of the ordinary. It's just how Sleeper Class rolls I suppose. And boy does Sleeper Class roll loudly. In 2AC, the actual compartment is separated from the entranceway by a solid door. This makes 2AC so quiet that you can barely hear the rumble of the train. In Sleeper, not only was there no barrier, but the doors of the train itself were also left wide open. On top of that, many passangers had left their individual windows wide open. As a result, the compartment was not only deafeningly loud, but by night time, it was also completely freezing. Lastly, because it was a local train, people kept getting on and off all throughout the night. At each stop, passengers would loudly board the train, stumbling over everything and waking everyone up. And don't even get me started on the snoring fat man across the aisle from me. Here I am being miserable on the train:
Now I'm all for "roughing" it a bit, but Sleeper Class was just plain shitty. By the time the sun came back up, I had probably logged in about three hours of intermittant dozing, as had Mimi. Mimi also told me the next morning that in the middle of the night, a woman had tapped her on the shouler while she was sleeping. "Can you move your legs please so I can sit down?" Mimi pretended to not understand and to be asleep, so the woman would move on. But she tapped Mimi again. "Hello! I'd like to sit down." So Mimi got sassy and told her that she paid for this berth, and that the woman should go sit somewhere else. Apparently, the woman acted like Mimi was the one being rude. Go figure.
So that was that. We arrived in Bundi on time at 7am, tired and ready for a nap. We would be staying at a very interesting guest house called RN Haveli. The place was a 250 year old haveli (traditional Rajasthani home) that had been converted into a guest house. The rooms had real character, including ancient doors and some stained glass panes. It was owned and partly run by a lovely, if just a bit senile, woman who introduced herself as Mama. Mama had help from quite a few people, but it was clear that she ran the show.
It didn't register at first, but we gradually realized how revolutionary and even controversial this was. A woman running a hotel in India is just unheard of, and Mama told us about the rumors that went around when she opened the place. Very often in India the hotel staff is cold and professional. But occasionally, you can find a place where the staff welcomes you in as family. This was one of those places. It had a cosy common room where we could chat with Mama and the other travelers. And the fact that RN Haveli advertises itself as a place that is safe for female travelers only adds to its awesomeness.
And still, the place had its set backs. For starters, the bathroom was competely dysfunctional. I'm used to the hot water not working, but this was a triple strike: the sink drained directly onto the bathroom floor, the toilet didn't flush, and the shower didn't even produce water, let alone hot water. But the entire room was costing me $3 a night, so I couldn't really complain, and after a visit from the plumber, things improved greatly.
Another fixture at RN Haveli was a man named Rinku, who Mama had hired to help manage the place about a year ago. Rinku, whose real name is Vishvesh Kumar Sharma, was a kind but mysterious man in his early 40s. Like just about every other man in India, he had a carefully manicured mustache, wore simple but functional clothing, and owned a motor bike. He spoke decent English, but did so in a timbre that was as stoic and unchanging as his face. I couldn't quiet place it, but Rinku somehow looked devious, conniving. And yet, nothing but kindness and generosity came out of his mouth. It was an odd paradox.
Rinku was kind enough to have picked us up from the train station. He also told us that the following day, if we wanted to, could go around with him on his motorbike to have a look at some of the sites around town. Like everything about Rinku, the invitation was awkward but genuine. We told him it sounded like fun but that we wanted to have a look around town first, and that we would let him know.
After a much required nap, Mimi and I ventured out into Bundi. The place was a breath of fresh air. It's just far enough off the tourist track that you can walk down the street without being constantly urged to go into a shop or take a richshaw somewhere. In other words, the place was hassle free. It also had beautiful old homes, many of which were painted blue. The place was downright charming. But the real attraction for me in Bundi was its magnificently decaying palace and fort that sat up atop a the city's tallest hill.
It boggled my mind that the place wasn't a bigger tourist attraction. In fact, it had been shut off from the public for centuries and only recently been reopened. In my opinion, they made a wise choice when they decided to clean the place up, but not to restore it beyond recognition. This is what they had done with the Agra Fort. They took restoration so far that they literally rebuilt the place. But here in Bundi, the palace and fort were left just as they had been, allowing us to obvserve the natural decay. As a result, the palace had an ancient mystique and authenticity that I loved. But even more I loved the fact that it wasn't swarming with other tourists. Even though it sat atop the city in plain view, it was almost like the place was a secret.
It was great fun wandering through and getting lost in the palace. On occasion, we would stumble upon some wall paintings that had miraculously survived over the years. We were also able to walk up on the roof, which offered wonderful views of Bundi below. The place was also swarming with monkeys to an alarming extent. In fact, Bundi in general has a serious wild monkey problem, but maybe thats for another post. The palace was a real highlight for me in India, and so I've included quite a few pictures. Be sure to scroll past them to continue reading.
Even higher above the palace lay the city's ancient fort, which dated back to the 14th century. The place was really wild. It was completely overrun with wild plants and monkeys. In fact, a nice boy "rented" us a big stick for 10 Rs (20 cents) so that we could protect ourselves if the monkeys came too close. The walk up to the fort took us through some dense foliage that ran alongside a decaying old rampart. Once we got to the top though, I was in heaven. I just love places like this. There were tons of ancient walls and buildings that were simply falling apart. We spent a good amount of time wandering around and getting lost in the maze of old buildings and stairways. Here are a few more pictures
That night, we had an unbelievably delicious home cooked thali back at RN Haveli. Although she didn't cook the food, Mama took great pride in it's deliciousness and freshness. As if she were a Jewish Mom in a previous life, she repeatedly urged us to eat more and more, making sure our plates remained full at all times. "Anything you need," she would say. "You aren't guests. You are family, and anything is possible for our family."
The next day we went on a very interesting motor bike trip with Rinku. Before I go into any more detail, however, I think it is important that you can see Rinku for yourselves. I'm telling you, this man is a mystery wrapped in an enigma. He never smiles, he never alters his firm monotone, and yet, he is now a friend of mine. He speaks his words with coldness and indifference, and yet says only the kindest, heart-warming things. Here are some pictures of us with Rinku. The man just doesn't smile.
Riding a motor bike through Bundi was a great deal of fun. The streets were inhabited just sparsely enough so that cruising through them was a real joy. Had therehttp://www.blogger.com/post-edit.g?blogID=8653924141680761005&postID=7314512577143355533 been any more pedestrians or cows on the road with us, I think it would have been terrifying. In the morning, Rinku took us to some great cenotaphs (burial grounds), some of which had been preserved and some which hadn't. The pace through these sites was a little slow for me, but Mimi seemed to particularly enjoy them.
One place was actually privately owned, and Rinku had to track down the groundskeeper, an ancient man sporting a wonderful turban that I've learned is quite typical for men to wear in Rajasthan. Here, the cenotaphs of a forgotten royal family had been over run by nature. We stayed here for perhaps and hour.
We then prepared for a 45 minute trip on the motor bike out to a waterfall that Rinku assured us was worth the trip. But first, we made a pit stop at what Rinku told us was by far the best samosa joint in town, and I have no doubt that he was right. It was so good in fact, that Mimi and I tracked it down the following day and went back for more. This place must churn out thousands of samosas a day, and had a huge staff to keep the line moving along. Like so much street food throughout the world, our samosas were served to us on a piece of newspaper. The filling was exquisite and the sauces on point. We were in heaven.
The bike trip out to the waterfall was long and uneventful and I was glad when we finally arrived at our destination. The scenery en route had been rather drab, but near the waterfall, it was suddenly reminiscent of what I imagine an African savanna to be like. Mimi and I both began getting some serious Lion King vibes and jokingly sang the momentous melody that opens the animated film.
As we walked down into the valley of the waterfall, two teenage Indian boys approached us and began talking to me. This happens on a daily basis and sometimes it is interesting and fun, but other times its very annoying. These conversations almost always follow the same line of questioning. 1) Which country are you from. 2) Which country is she from? 3) What is your relation to her? 4) How long are you staying in India? 5) What is your profession?
I wasn't particularly in the mood for one of these conversations, but the boys were persistent and followed as we walked towards the waterfall. I normally would have made an attempt to end the conversation, except that the boy doing most of the questioning, whose name was Pradeep, spoke English in a bizarre accent that was unmistakably Russian. This alone made the conversation quite interesting. I have no idea why he spoke English with a Russian accent, but he did. It was a strange thing, walking and talking with a 17 year old Indian boy whose voice, when I closed my eyes, recalled perhaps a young Polish immigrant, fresh off the boat and full of vigor and optimism. Bizarre.
As Rinku had promised, the waterfall was pretty awesome. We hung out there for a while and took a bunch of photos with some other Indians who had gathered around. Here is a picture of the waterfall and a picture of me with one of the local men.
On the way back to Bundi, we made a pit stop at a farm. Rinku was friends with the family and thought it would be interesting for us to see an Indian farm. The family spoke very little English, but showed us their crops and their cows. They even milked the cow for us and Mimi was brave enough to try milking the cow as well. Rinku told us that they would make fresh chai tea for us with this milk. The tea was incredibly rich and creamy, as the milk was literally as fresh as can be. All in all, it was a really cool experience.
We spent our final day in Bundi walking around the city itself. We had no particular destination or goal in mind. We just wanted to explore. In addition to the return to the samosa stand, we had some other yummy street snacks and I also got a beard trim at a local barber. Bundi is a great town. It moves at an ever so slightly slower pace than other Indian cities, but its just enough to make Bundi a breath of fresh air. It was great fun to walk through the city's charming blue alleyways. In one neighborhood, all of the children had learned the phrase, "One photo!" so we ended up taking quite a few pictures with the kids. We also saw a goat tethered in a rather precarious position.
The previous day, Rinku has invited us to his house for the following night so that we could meet his family. It was the kind of awkward invitation one is never sure whether or not to accept. Did Rinku really want us to meet his family, or was he just being polite? We decided that either way, it would be an experience to remember, so we accepted the invitation.
We rode across town once again on his motor bike and eventually arrived at the building which housed his family. On the first floor were two classrooms, a small school that his father had established. After walking up a flight of stairs, we entered an apartment composed of large, barren rooms. It was a very nice, clean apartment and I realized then that Rinku's family was actually pretty well off. We also learned that Rinku had previously been a football player and had even played on the Rajasthani State team for two seasons. He had a vast collection of trophies to prove it.
I personally found the experience to be very interesting but also quite awkward and a bit stressful. I was very happy to be visiting Rinku's home as a friend. But at the same time, there was an unspoken barrier between us. Was it I who had erected it? Perhaps. Or maybe it was just Rinku's inexplicably sinister persona, his inability to smile and laugh. I couldn't help but feel that I was intruding on their privacy. We briefly met his wife, his two year old son, and his mother and father. They all smiled at Mimi and I, but lacked the English to go much further than that.
For me, the absolute highlight of the experience was when we flipped through Rinku's wedding photos, which were kept in an extravagently decorated binder. Like virtually all Indian marriages, Rinku's had been arranged by his parents, and as we flipped through the hundreds of professionally shot photos documenting the six days of matrimonial ceremonies, it really sank in how different our cultures were.
Rinku's wife then brought us some delicious parantha bread and sweets, which we happily ate. Before we knew it, it was getting late. We said goodbye to Rinku's family and he drove us back to the guest house. I was grateful for the experience, but somehow exhausted by it as well.
And that was Bundi. We left early the next morning by bus for Pushkar, where I am now.