IMPORTANT NOTE: This blog entry is very long (as opposed to every other blog entry I've written), so I won't be mad if you don't read all of it. I do think you guys should know that I went to my first gay bar ever last week. It was amazing. It was named Pegs and Pints: A Heady Experience: how many double entendres can you spot? Sketchy Indian men are gross anyway, but sketchy Indian men making out with each other might be worse. Anyway, read on, if you want.
Rajasthan means "the land of princes." It's a desert state in the far far west of India, and it's where Carrie, Mary, Kate, Kavita, Dasha, and I went over our long weekend. Tuesday was Indian Independence Day and Wednesday was Krishna's birthday (Krishna is an incarnation of Vishnu, one of the most important Hindu gods), so we bunked Monday class to go traveling to Jaisalmer, in western Rajasthan.
My adventure started on the rickshaw ride to Stephens to meet the others. A car and a motorcycle full of young Indian men pulled up alongside the rickshaw. Apparently they knew each other, because someone in the car passed a video camera to someone on the motorcycle, and the motorcycle rider started videotaping me. Every so often the motorcycle would switch sides, so I guess they got lots of different angles of me trying to disappear. Creepy. But after that I met up with the Stephens kids and we were on our way...kind of. Twenty-four hour time is difficult to read, and when we got to the train station it turned out that our train had left two hours before. After the terrible Greyhound trip I took from Claremont to Corvallis last summer, I vowed to never ride a bus for twenty hours again, but we wanted to get to Jaisalmer as soon as possible. So soon we were riding the Metro to a Rajasthan state government-run bus station, and we got onto a (very nice, air-conditioned) bus headed to Jaipur, in eastern Rajasthan.
It was 3:30 am when we got to Jaipur, which was the perfect time to find out that buses don't leave from there to Jaisalmer every half hour, as we had been told they did. Instead, we dozed off for three hours in the bus station. Then we hopped on a bus to Jodhpur, where we found out that there wasn't going to be a very nice, air-conditioned bus to Jaisalmer for hours. OK, so how bad could the lowest-class buses be?
Half an hour later, we were sitting three to a seat for the five hour trip from Jodhpur to Jaisalmer. The windows were open, which let in a little air and a lot of dust, but only the dust reached my aisle seat. Better that, though, than standing in the aisle, which many people pay to do. We let some mothers and their children borrow some of our seat space. One of the children was apparently mentally retarded and bit Mary. But even that kind of a seat was probably preferable to sitting on the roof of the bus, like twenty-odd people wound up doing. This is pretty common on the less expensive classes of Indian buses.
In spite of my whining, I'm glad we wound up on the cheap bus (although maybe I won't be eager to do it again). I had a couple of conversations in broken Hindi with a tiny girl who shook my hand when she got off the bus; her grandmother offered us chai, which of course was not safe to accept, so we had to be rude. This was a different class of people than we usually see, since they were not only quite poor but also rural. Also, the bus steward had the most amazing ear hair I have ever seen. It grew only on the outer edge of his ear, and it stuck out on either side of his head like little wings. He must have gelled it to get it so stiff. Of all the unusual fashions I've seen in India (and there have been some strange ones), this took the cake.
But then it was Sunday afternoon and we were finally in Jaisalmer. Look at a map of India; Jaisalmer is very close to the border with Pakistan, in the Great Thar Desert. Because of this, it figured in a couple Indo-Pak wars, and now there's a military base in the area. In addition, the windmills that line the horizon power not only the city but also the border. The city itself is, no lie, the most beautiful I have ever seen. The core is a fort built in the 12th century by one of the Rajput rulers, and it looks exactly like a life-size sandcastle. Thousands of people still live in the fort, and we were lucky enough to stay in a hotel inside the fort. I mean, it was lucky for us, but it's not advised by any tour guides, because the fort's infrastructure (especially the ancient water system, Dad) can't support the weight of tourists and inhabitants, so it's slowly crumbling. Tourism, Jaisalmer's main industry, is eating itself alive. But Brinda booked our hotel for us, so it wasn't my fault. Our hotel really was precious, complete with "Johnny" Bim Lama, our Tibetan waiter-janitor-etc who offered to "wife" Mary.
After we woke up on Monday (for sure we slept well since we had real beds and not bus seats), we explored the fort. We took a tour of the palace inside the fort, which was beautiful but crumbling, and then we went to one of the havelis outside of the fort. I think "haveli" might be the origin of our word "hovel," but it really means "mansion." This was closer to a hovel, though; it was probably beautiful when a businessman built it in the 19th century, but now it's falling apart. We also found time to shop; I got harem pants which I am never taking off...they are amazing. Mary can vouch. The shopkeepers go for the hard sell here; some of them offered us "99% discounts," and one told us that God would punish us if we didn't come into his shop. Incidentally, we wore Indian clothes the whole time we were in Jaisalmer. In Delhi we dress more traditionally than some of the LSR girls, but here all the women wear beautiful traditional saris. Rajasthani dress is very distinctive, but wearing generic Indian clothes made us a (very) little less conspicuous. Several shopkeepers asked us if we were Israeli, though; apparently we wear our purses in an Israeli style. In the evening, Kavita and I went to the Desert Culture Center ("A Single Man's Effort") to see a traditional Rajasthani puppet show. After the show, which was hilarious, was over, we tried to sneak out to find everyone else, but the Single Man, a retired Rajasthani schoolteacher with the exact same ear hair as the bus steward, lassoed us on our way out the door. He explained to us how most tourists just want to see monuments, monuments, monuments, but his museum is dedicated to showing how the people of Rajasthan live. He's dedicated his life to collecting cultural artifacts and displaying them in his museums. It was sweet of him to show us around (he even sped up the tour because he sensed we wanted to leave), but it was also sort of sad--he's fighting cultural erosion so hard, but there's not a lot A Single Man's Effort can do to preserve the traditional way of life.
We left Tuesday afternoon for a camel safari! It was maybe the best thing ever. Some of the hotel workers drove us in Jeeps to a desert village where our camels were waiting. On the way, we stopped in another village to look around. The children all crowded around us, but then they almost immediately started asking for things. They clowned around with our sunglasses, which was precious until Kavita's got stolen. It was a shame--they were so adorable, but then they got fierce if you didn't give them handouts. Our guide called them gypsies; apparently Indian gypsies have the same reputation for thievery as European Gypsies used to have. Anyway, we left the village pretty quickly after that and boarded our camels. I rode a camel in Jordan, but it was when I was four, so this was exciting. And high--it turns out camels are really, really tall and wide. And amazing. We rode for a while, then stopped to run down a few sand dunes, then rode some more. That night, the camel drivers made us dinner, and then they rolled out blankets (which smelled like camel, but so did we), and we slept under the clouds. Rajasthan gets an average of two inches of rain per year, and for a couple of hours I thought we'd get all two inches in the one night, but then the weather settled for just lightning-ing. Except for the occasional dung beetle crawling down my shirt in the night, it was very pleasant. Also, some Spaniards staying at the hotel came on the safari, and I got to practice my Spanish with them! I remembered more than I thought I did, but I wish I could say the same for Hindi...
When we woke up on Wednesday morning, the camel drivers cooked us breakfast, and then we got into the Jeeps to drive back to Jaisalmer. In my heart I was disappointed to not get to ride the camels back, but in my rear I was happy. Camels make for a bumpy ride. Back in Jaisalmer, we went to some ornately carved Jain temples and an unremarkable Hindu temple (happy birthday, Krishna). Jainism, a tiny religion, is related closely to Buddhism and Hinduism, but its most remarkable aspect is its emphasis on not harming any living thing. All Jains are vegetarians, and some of them wear masks to avoid breathing in insects. Ultra-orthodox Jains don't eat onions or garlic, either because they don't want to destroy the root of life or because digging up the plant might harm insect life; I've heard both explanations. After those temples (and whoops, some more shopping), we got on our train back home. We had a roomy compartment to ourselves, which we realized would become a whole lot less roomy once we folded the seat back up to make the middle tier of a three-tiered sleeping compartment. Roominess wasn't in the cards at all, though, because a couple villages after we boarded our train, a large extended family of Rajasthani peasants got on; I guess trains have standing-room-only tickets too. Of course we shared our seats with some of the women, but that turned out to be just about the best choice ever. Kavita (who is half-Indian and so knows more Hindi than the rest of us put together) started a conversation with one of the women, and after about five minutes she was inviting us to her home to drink milk straight from the udder. After that she appointed herself our "Rajasthani mom." She spoke only Rajasthani, which is about half similar to Hindi, but it was enough so that Kavita could get the gist of what she was saying. Also, she and her sister? had their names tattooed on their arms, and our best guess is that that way they know how to write them. Then they asked us to sing some American songs, and it took forever for us to think of a couple to sing, poorly. They returned the favor with Rajasthani village songs, which were amazing. After the women in our compartment sang, the compartment next door (full of children and teenagers) sang a couple of songs, including one in honor of Krishna's birthday. Whenever they were in danger of leaving a verse out or letting the song die, a man sitting in the compartment would pick the song up and keep them going. Sometimes this man would even start dancing and clapping in his seat. Really, it was an incredible show of hospitality. Our Rajasthani mom asked for one of our phone numbers before she left the train at Jodhpur, and she promised to call us if she is ever in Delhi. I don't know if she will be, but she was amazing.
After Jodhpur, we were alone in our compartment, but it was time for sleep. I never would have guessed I could get a couple of real REM cycles in on a bench, but after fighting dung beetles all of the night before, I was tired enough to sleep anywhere. Then when I woke up this morning there were many sweaty, dirty (our compartment wasn't air-conditioned, so half of the Great Thar Desert came in through our open windows), crowded (the Jaisalmer "Express" turns into a commuter train when it hits Delhi, it turns out) hours before we landed at the Delhi station. But now we're back to the big city, after the best trip I've had on this trip so far. We're going back to Rajasthan in November for the Pushkar camel fair, so I haven't seen the last of the camels or the people.