April's Notes from the Road: India (2000)

As I am scheduled to return to India next month for the first time in seven years (my current itinerary includes Bangalore, Chennai and some time in the countryside of Tamil Nadu), it seemed appropriate to refresh my Indian memories and dust off my first travelogue from that country. In 2000 I spent a few months in northern India, focused principally on the region of Rajasthan. This trip took place before my “official” entry into the world of microfinance. Given that India represents the largest and most robust single-country microfinance market in the world today, I look forward to recombining my interests in travel and economic development and experiencing the changes and differences between north and south first-hand!“Namaste” – warmest greetings in Hindi, whose literal meaning is "I bow before you."I have just completed several weeks’ travel in and around the Indian subcontinent, where my focus was primarily on the state of Rajasthan (in northwestern India). I chose to concentrate on this region for a variety of reasons – its rich history and religious and cultural diversity, its reputation for bright sarees and rich textiles, a dear friend who lives in nearby Delhi, and the fact that trying to cover more territory than that without spending several months in India would have been a nightmare. It is most definitely true that travel in India is not easy or quick, but one is amply rewarded for any inconvenience or discomfort by the sheer beauty, contrast, sensory stimuli and pace of it all.Above all, Indian is ALIVE. The country represents life in its pure, raw, whole form. I have spent much time trying to figure out how to “define and summarize” India for you, and although I am still stumped about that, perhaps there are some broad generalizations that can be drawn based simply on my personal observations. Much of what I had heard about the country before arriving proved to be true. Cows are sacred and (along with camels, elephants and monkeys) wander everywhere in the streets. The poverty is horrific, astounding and omnipresent. The food is spicy and delicious – more taste combinations than my palate has ever before encountered. A woman's worth in rural areas is still often based upon how many sons she produces, and consistently higher rates of child malnutrition persist among females. These random statements and observations merely scratch the surface of India, but there are innumerable layers beneath that are begging to be discovered by the traveler willing to risk a bit of her “self” and who is unafraid of humility, shock, or questioning the very basis and meaning of “humanity.”In my opinion Indians know better than anyone else in the world how to “live simply, and simply live.” Together, on the streets, in homes, at any hour, in any conditions, talking, walking, sweeping, carrying, caring, trying, inside, outside, with children, with family, with friends, with enemies, in commonplace situations, in unexpected circumstances... just BEING, and doing so everywhere. They have redefined what the words "patience" and "gentle" mean to me, and they present a good challenge as to the question between humankind’s wants versus needs. And finally India opened my eyes to the idea that spirituality can (and ought) to be an integral part of everyone's existence without having anything to do with orthodoxy, immutable doctrine or organized religion. Indeed, India has a way of sending one on a spiritual journey of sorts that – whether you like it or not, you must only be open to and aware of it – touches and changes you forever.Getting from San Francisco to Delhi was an odyssey in itself. A total of 37 hours, in fact, thanks to an unexpected layover in Taiwan (to refuel), one in Hong Kong (to shop), and a scheduled one in Singapore... before I arrived bleary-eyed but excited to be in Delhi. A close friend of mine from Oxford days was there to whisk me away at 2:30a.m. to her tranquil flat – thank goodness for that and for her Hindi skills, otherwise my Indian adventures might never have made it past the airport taxi ranks!The capital city of Delhi is NOT a favorite of mine, and I quickly became convinced that it would destroy three things: my lungs (pollution and exhaust grittier than I've ever seen before), my voice (ditto for the reasons) and my shoes. Aside from the dirt that seems to have radar detection for leather loafers, there is also a popular scam attempted by young boys in which they toss (what looks like) “dog doo” on your shoes just so you will have to pay them 10 rupees (roughly 25 cents) to clean it up. Even though this kind of antics may be indicative of the extremity of the problem of poverty in the country, I was neither amused nor feeling particularly generous when this happened to me…Despite the dog doo incident, Delhi did contain some grand monuments and fun experiences. I particularly enjoyed Humayan's Tomb (absolutely magical at sunset, and the red rock used there is far richer than that at Delhi's better-known Red Fort), the open-air Dilli Hat regional craft market and food stalls and the Jama Masjid mosque. It was in front of the Jama Masjid that, while waiting for it to re-open after the Friday midday prayers, one of my most memorable Indian experiences occurred. Not wanting to waste time (or to be seen loafing about by Indian males, who would undoubtedly approach me asking "Which you country? First time India? How long Rajasthan?"… it is amazing to me how they have managed to eliminate all verbs but are still all too easily understood!), I sat down on the mosque steps to write in my journal. Before I knew it there were no fewer than ten children swarming around me, watching over my shoulder, giggling and staring at me with deep, gentle eyes. One young girl in particular had fewer inhibitions than her friends and sat down beside me, watching my every movement intently. All of a sudden I looked up, placed my journal in her lap, handed her my pen and used body language to encourage her to draw something. She did... again and again, and so did her friends. Suffice it to say that what was expected to be a nondescript ten-minute wait became a one-hour lesson in the universality of childhood fun, and I now have several versions of a woman wearing glasses and a saree (their interpretations of me in Indian dress) in my journal. So very special and memorable – and indicative of the openness, beauty and unexpected experiences that were to befall me more often than I ever imagined in the country.From Delhi, it was off to Agra and the Taj Mahal, a not-to-be-missed sight for any visitor to Rajasthan (though technically not part of that region, it is definitely close enough to merit a detour). It is beautiful indeed, especially at sunrise and sunset, but really tested my crowd tolerance – tourists and visitors everywhere! Granted, 80% of visitors are Indian and I think it’s great that there is so much home-grown interest in the Taj, but when entrance fees are five rupees for Indians and five HUNDRED rupees for foreigners, and good photos are a near impossibility because of the crowds, even I get a little agitated… Far preferred by me were Agra's much-less-inundated Red Fort and the Itimad-Ud-Daulah "mini Taj" built across the river. The detail and intricacy of the inlaid marble work in all of these mausoleums is amazing – and I got to take a side trip to see first-hand how it is made.Crossing the river upon returning to the bazaar (market) that evening was also my first dhobi-wallah observation... Dhobiwallah is a very useful term which means essentially “one who does” (hence there are also chai-wallahs (the wonderful men with their chai tea carts), rickshaw-wallahs and so on). Dhobi-wallahs knock on your door in the early morning, take any laundry you may have (tourists pay per piece – I am not sure how locals calculate their dhobi bill), wash it in the river (or if one is not nearby, a bucket), color-code it, and lay it out on the rocks or steps to dry in the sun. Another one of my favorite, most indelibly-seared-in-my-mind memories of India is the sight of dhobi-patchwork quilts on the riverbanks, endless blotches of gold and pink and turquoise, accompanied by the "thwap-thwap-thwap" of dhobi-wallahs beating the clothes clean, and the squeals of children bathing and playing in the water nearby. means laundry, andContinuing on my own, from Agra I headed to the small town of Bharatpur, which is famous for its Keoladeo Ghana bird sanctuary. It was here that I decided to try an even more local form of transport – a bike. There seems to be but one type of bicycle in India: black, rickety, with one speed (or three if you are really lucky), stand-up handlebars and clackety-clack fenders. I hired one, christened it Rajesh (Rajesh seems to be the most common male name in Rajasthan – I would bet that there are ten Rajeshes in India for every one Mohammed in Morocco) and headed first to town to check out the market, fort and decaying palaces. Apparently it is extremely uncommon for ANY woman to ride a bike in India, much less a tow-headed freckled one with a backpack. Talk about a conversation topic – I am just glad I didn't cause any rickshaw accidents! But boy, did I feel observed from all angles and at every second, by men, women and children alike. Their stares were kind however, and prompted by utter disbelief of what they were seeing rather than any overt gawking.The town of Bharatpur is falling apart and was not of much interest to me, but I did hop off Rajesh at one point when waved to by a group of about a dozen elderly turbaned men. I think I nearly shocked their long curlicue moustaches off of them! (Moustaches are hallmarks of Rajput men and date back to the heyday of maharajas (princes) with their ornate palaces). It turned out that this group of men was a Lions Club of Bharatpur of sorts (though any business connection would be a long stretch) which centered principally on one member's rolling chai cart. Indeed, Durga was a chai-wallah, and he and his buddies spent the next half-hour showing me how to make that most sublime concoction of black tea, milk, and secret recipe masala (mixed spices, among which factor heavily ginger, cardamom and cloves). After having had my fill of chai, snapped a few pictures of me ladling out cupfuls behind the cart and repeated namastes I spent the afternoon cycling around wetlands, trying to differentiate the birds and their calls and to dodge the monkeys, deer and wild boar that crossed the narrow dirt roads. A particularly vivid memory is of sunset that evening, sitting on the bank of one of the lakes as dusk came softly amidst the shrills, coos and chatter of the thousands of birds returning home to nest. (which also means goodbye, kind of like “ciao” in Italian can mean either salutation depending on whether one is arriving or departing), I headed for Keoladeo.I remember arriving in the capital city of Jaipur (also known as The Pink City for the color of its city center walls which alight in fiery shades of rose against the twilight sun) and thinking, "This trip just keeps getting better. How long can such luck continue?" The answer turned out to be until the very end; and each day saw new, wonderful and markedly different adventures and experiences. Jaipur was fantastic, not least for its impressive City Palace complex, the elegant and beautiful Hawa Mahal (Palace of the Winds) and the Jantar Mantar astronomical-contraptions-cum-open-air-art-exhibit, plus the endless markets and artisans for which it is known. I managed to partake of it ALL: I bought a silk saree and a traditional Punjabi outfit (loose pants, a loose 3/4-length tunic and a long scarf – all in 100% cotton fabric that had been woodblock-printed by hand). I went to the Rambagh Palace (home of the Polo Club) and took tea in the horizon-less garden. I experienced my first 3 ½ hour (no joke!) Hindi film at the Raj Mandir cinema and the epitome of exaggerated acting. And one night on my way back to the guesthouse, I was the hapless victim of a drunken rickshaw wallah who crashed into a fixed post on the main street. When this happened, I realized he was drunk and quickly bolted from the scene (whether this was the best idea, I am not sure in hindsight – but in the moment I was in “flight or fight” mode). What actually ensued was pretty funny. The driver turned around to chase me, maneuvering his rickshaw poorly in large part because he was going against traffic. The police got involved and a traffic jam was caused. I couldn't keep from chuckling, and just kept saying that "he's gone mad" to the policeman. Ultimately we were all let go from the scene by my paying half of the fare originally negotiated – not to the rickshaw-wallah, but to the policeman! Go figure, though it was pretty clear what was going on... it’s called baksheesh in Hindi, and can mean anything from bribery to a legitimate tip to a charitable donation. God I started to love India…While in Jaipur I took a day trip to visit two (of a trip total of five) awe-inspiring hilltop forts, those at Amber and Jaigarh. Once the scene of battles, intrigue and who-knows-what-else, today they are oases of tranquility whose silent courtyards, labyrinthine corridors and panoramic vistas do nothing but calm the senses and pique the imagination. They were also good preparation for what I was to behold the following morning. I had taken a late train to Jodhpur (also known as The Blue City for the periwinkle color of the Brahmin homes, though today the painting regulations are not caste-specific), and hence was not able to appreciate either the blue hues or the enormity of the city's Meherangarh Fort looming nearby until I was on the guesthouse's rooftop terrace sipping my morning chai the following day.The fort complex is truly a sight to behold! I quickly clambered my way through the town's narrow lanes and up the hill, explored the fortress and its excellent museums, unexpectedly received my first bindi (the red blessing-dot you see on foreheads) from the Hindu priest at the fort temple, and – definitely an unexpected experience to be had in a fort – visited a palmologist. His reading was pure fun.He compared my life to a bottle of wine, and again I wondered how things could get any better yet figured somehow they would.After Jodhpur I spent a further day visiting several Bishnoi villages. The Bishnoi are native people known for their extreme environmentalism and artisanal skills, and we saw how dhurrie rugs and clay-ash pottery are made. We also partook in the ritual of drinking opium water… after which it was time for me to head towards the Pakistani border and to celebrate my 26th birthday. I planned on doing this in Jaisalmer, also known as The Golden City for the color of its rough-hewn walls. It is one of the world's few remaining "living" forts, with shops and homes and full-on-life going on inside today just as it has for centuries. When the fort’s 99 bastions are lit up at night, it falls nothing short of an Indian Star Trek scene. And my birthday celebrations were fun and certainly unique in my life. My birthday meal was the traditional (but sadly hard to find) Rajasthani 'kair sangri' (kair, a sweet desert fruit, is sautéed with onions dried shredded mango, mustard oil, chillies and plenty of spices – pow!), and a 19th-century Kashmiri textile was my gift of choice. My bargaining skills were significantly honed during two-full-day negotiations with a local merchant named Bhanwar, and at the end I became the owner of a gorgeous patchwork of fabrics inlaid with tiny mirrors, beaded maharani collar-pieces and silk swatches laced with gold thread.Turning south from Jaisalmer, I passed by Pokoran (the site of India's nuclear testing in May 1998) en route to the famed Jain temples at Ranakpur. Following a long, achy day of bumpy bus rides, there was nothing I wanted more than to go for a long walk in solitude.Thankfully this wish was easily granted, given that Ranakpur is in what feels like the middle of jungle-ish nowhere. Even the bus driver looked at me bewilderedly when I insisted on getting off there late at night. Early the next morning I set off on a 15 km stroll past mud homes built into the hillside, lush banana plantations and millet fields, women pumping water and horse-drawn carts led by scruffy, smiling children going about their business. Feeling refreshed like this made me better able to appreciate the temples' grandeur too.Jainism is a fascinating religion, a sort of fusion between Hinduism and Buddhism, and the Ranakpur temple complex is perhaps the finest architectural representation of its principles. The main Chaturmukha Temple was built beginning in 1459 and contains 1444 intricately carved columns, no two of which are alike!To complete the Rajasthani Crayola box, The White City (also known as "Venice of the East" for its setting on Lake Pichola and the elongated and stately homes that grace its border) of Udaipur was next on my itinerary. Even though it is the most popular tourist destination in the region, Udaipur manages to retain a certain authenticity and charm nevertheless. I splurged on a room with a lakeside view and was awakened every morning by the sounds of waves lapping the shores and the "thwap-thwap-thwapping" of the day's early dhobi-wallahs. I loved this! It was around this point that I finally felt comfortable having enough Rajasthani history under my belt to begin to synthesize the various events, dynasties, etc. vis-à-vis one another (a sort of "hey, at least some of this makes sense!" if you will). The City Palace complex was again majestic, as were the Lake Palace and Fateh Prakash hotels and the latter's Durbar Hall and Crystal Gallery (which included an entire home's furnishings made out of crystal!). One day I hitched a ride on a motorcycle. That was fun, and again quite a conversation topic for the men nearby. Another evening I took a boat cruise on the lake. And thanks to tourism and an excellent folklore museum, I learned all I ever wanted to know about Rajasthani puppetry, traditional folk dances, and miniature painting. All in all a most comprehensive first visit – though I would love to go back!My next stop after Udaipur was Chittorgarh Fort, some four hours north-east by jaw-popping bus. It is actually more the size of a small city than a fort. The place didn’t have much to report to me, except that jauhar was performed on a massive scale here (when military defeat was imminent, custom and honor held that men were to don saffron robes and ride out to certain death, while the women burned themselves en masse on funeral pyres), and I had to shower by candlelight that evening. Power outages are quite common in India, I discovered. They have nothing to do with lines being cut or repairs being done, but rather that at times there is simply not enough power to supply nearly 1 BILLION people. So one just makes do and adapts a flexible approach to doing just about anything.Far more interesting (and frustrating) than Chittorgarh for me was the tiny town of Pushkar. Place of Hindu pilgrimage and home to India's largest annual camel fair and its only temple dedicated to Brahma, Pushkar both benefits and suffers from its fame. Its 25 ghatsAs for me, I quickly decided that it was not my scene – but not before (I truly think) my food had been spiked (with what I still do not know) and I was feeling very ill. I decided to try and “recover” with a 2 ½ hour full-body Ayurvedic massage for a grand total of $7. It worked!Feeling better, I headed out of town by foot to explore the two "hill temples" in Pushkar that afford great views of the area. I hiked to one just after sunrise and to the other at sunset. On my descent from the first one, I happened to meet a Canadian couple who are producing a documentary film on travelers and who interviewed me on camera for over an hour. That was fun, and I received the video (entitled “Baba Cool”) about a year later. are well maintained and internet cafes abound, but so do too many Westerners smoking pot and enrolling in pseudo-yoga classes.I finally got out of Pushkar and headed even further off the beaten tourist track to the region known as Shekhawati. This area is known for its historic havelis, which are merchant homes that date from the turn of the century and were ornately painted (both inside and out) with a fusion of native and British Raj scenes. Unfortunately hundreds of these palaces have been allowed to fall into sad states of disrepair, but some rare good specimens still remain. I was able to see several of these in my wanderings around the sleepy towns of Nawalgarh, Mandawa and Fatepuhr. (Heck, at this point it was enough for me simply to be away from knock-off hippie clothes and hassle to buy "karma cassettes" that I’d struggled with in Pushkar!) However, I will grant that being on the well-beaten tourist path does have advantages when it comes to travel logistics, as I was clearly reminded of during the 27 km bus ride from Fatepuhr back to Nawalgarh which took 2 ½ HOURS. Yes, that is right – it took 2 ½ hours for a bus to go approximately 17 miles. I almost could have jogged as fast, at least without my backpack! Ah, well, as with so many things in India, travel is not often quick or each but it is absolutely worth the extra effort.Coming back to Delhi after several weeks on my Rajasthani circuit was more than returning to chaos, grit, and my friend from Oxford. It also represented my coming "full circle" in a deeper sense, in terms of both disposition and the things I want to prioritize and am concerned about. What I formerly termed “worries” on a personal level now melt in comparison to those which face the country of India.Two of these topics that beg to be addressed are poverty and development. My initial reaction to beggars was to give a few rupees I was stirred, upset, caught off guard by these things and felt somehow responsible. However, during the course of my stay I learned that if you give everyone a rupee who asks for one, even a rich person will be broke in a matter of minutes. The problem of poverty is one that has neither a single source of blame nor a simple solution – though clearly microfinance can be a fundamental part of this, and indeed India today represents the world’s largest single microfinance market (in terms of outreach to the national population). In talking with more affluent Indians I also gathered that a certain desensitization to the issue is necessary in order to not fall into a perpetual state of depression, that most action is taken via various charitable and/or grass-roots organizations, and that many Indians react by giving people got a few rupees when possible, but without rhyme or reason as to whom or how much. any time I had spare change, and to look the other way whenever I saw someone defecating in the street.So how to best wrap up this travelogue? Well, a "Best of Rajasthan" list might not be a bad start for my first visit. Here are some of my favorite sights, sounds and occurrences, in no particular order (just close your eyes, and try to imagine them):

  • The twilight hour of early evening, when the roadside fires have been lit for both warmth and to brew chai, and endless clusters of squatting men and mesmerizing chatter fill the air and one’s senses.
  • The brilliant colors of sarees as groups of women whose heads are covered cross through the fields, the fabric folds gently undulating and starkly contrasting with the desert sand and the rich landscapes.
  • The deep gentle eyes and enormous bright smiles of the children (and their never-ending screech of "one pen, one pen, lady!").
  • The culinary odyssey that was undertaken, and now knowing the difference between chapati, naan, puri and dosa (to say nothing of kofta vs. korma vs. karma).
  • Again on the subject of cuisine, my daily samples of barfi (a sweet milk-based fudge that is flavored with things as exotic as saffron threads, rose water and peppercorns) and lassi (a thick yogurt drink, available in such flavors as ginger, banana... or even cannabis (I didn't try that one!)).
  • And finally, the simple act of putting one's hands in a praying position, bowing the head lightly, closing the eyes and saying "Namaste" to an elderly lady without shoes or teeth but bedecked by several pieces of beautiful gold jewelry.

In summary, India was and is a fantastic, amazing, indescribable place. It is everything, has experienced and seen and accepted so much over time. Indeed, I think that there is much that the West can learn and glean from the Indian subcontinent, about religious tolerance, unrivalled examples of art and architecture (it is a shame that there are not more funds to make these monuments better known to the outside world), and that it would be a great thing if we were ALL able to RUN towards each day, without knowing what is in store for us, with the zest and kind, warm, smiling, welcoming faces that so many Indians do.