Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Pushkar, Jaisalmer, and Khuri

Before I move forward, I must dwell for a brief minute on the past. In case you didn't get enough pictures of stoic Rinku, I have one more for ya'll. Here is one of me looking serious with Rinku in front of his impressive collection of football trophies. Enjoy!

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.

Rajastani sweets.

Around town.


Patna-Ki-Haveli again.

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!

1 comment:

  1. Hey Michael,

    I hope you keep writing when you go back to China, I'm really interested.