Thursday, November 26, 2009

Bundi, Rajasthan

In this entry I will cover the three days I've just spent in the wonderful mid-sized city of Bundi, Rajasthan, as well as the comically miserable train ride it took us to get there.

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 there 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.

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