Night Train to Jodhpur

We survive the overnight train ride with minimal hassle. Tired, kya? (are you tired?) Yes, but will get over it. I feel a glint of a short story brewing here…’Night Train to Jodhpur’… overtired, overstimulated brain working overtime and I can’t wait for whatever comes next.

December 23, Jodhpur: We were lucky to only be about an hour late arriving. Tis the nature of travel – maybe everything – in India. And nobody complains. It just is. So the train adventure was enjoyed to the maximum; bumps, stops, starts, a few cockroackes and dueling loudmouths at 3am make the story more interesting. Western toilets, maybe stinkier than the Indian ones. Chai wallah delivers a brilliant wake-up cup (and fills the travel mug upon request!!), ringing in the day on a perfectly acceptable note. The ride to the Haveli is through water-logged side streets, but the tuk tuks magically sprout rudders and sail us through the muck (no, actually, we get splashed and it is what it is).

I almost expect to see royal carriages in the car park and Maharajas or their attendants lounging in this old royal residence-cum-hotel… The Krishna Prakash Heritage Haveli is a renovated mansion of old, with the decor and architecture beckoning me back to a time and place long, long ago. The hotel sits in the shadow of the large-looming Merhangarh Fort, a palace to the Maharaja of Jodhpur.

View of Merhangarh Fort from KP Heritage Haveli

Merhangarh Fort…In this land of princely kingdoms, Maharajas and Maharanis, you can feel their presence in the air. Maybe it’s because I’m reading a novel set in and around one of these palaces. Maybe it’s because the 70-100′ high walls are imposing and awe-inspiring; the views breathtaking; and the intricate detail in every room and on every surface either a spectacular testament to a Royal’s ego or a manifestation of their impeccable attention to every last detail. Either way, the views of the Blue City from the top were jaw-dropping.

And to (Sadar Bazaar) market we go… there is the story of the fabric seller who weaves his own tales of fame and high fashion and fortune. The spice merchant who carries on her father’s legacy in the spice business. The samosa maker who should win the nobel prize for street food. Same goes for the lassi walla.

So we travel on into the proverbial pink/blue Jodhpur sunset…air resonating with the distant sounds of the adhan, the call to prayer, tuk tuk beeps, cats, drums and train horns. Genuine thali for dinner (need to check if free refills are included in thali back home!), and I have said at least 3 times today, “I can’t believe I’m really in India.”

Street Walking in Delhi

December 22: Street Walking in Old Delhi

This day starts with a walk in the streets of Old Delhi’s Chandni Chowk. Chaos wakes up early, as street sleepers and tuk tuks, taxis, cycle rickshaws, cows, dogs and all others who share the roads begin their frenzy. “Chai omelet chai omelet” yell the markets’ breakfast wallahs. Misplaced punctuation makes a traveller curious.

Sobering is the number of kids on the street in the cities here. In a population of 1 billion, there are a million kids living on the streets in India. A million runaways, cast-offs, lost, forgotten, displaced and simply abandoned or not-forgotten children who could be potential game-changers for the next generation. We connect with a NGO called Salaam Baalak Trust, working to help these boys and girls get off the streets and rise to their dharma. According to their website, Salaam Baalak Trust translates literally to “salute the child,” and they do this by providing a safe haven for such a slim fraction of these kids.

So after a walk in the gnarly, dirty, busy, noisy, somewhat smelly but not as bad as I expected streets, we met some of the new arrivals at the Salaam Baalak Trust boys’ shelter in Paharganj. Here, they dance, they sing, they learn, they look for their families…many of whom don’t want them back. My heart nearly exploded when a very small boy, maybe 7 or 8, took my hands in his little warm mitts, stared directly into my eyes and asked me, “what are your dreams?” He wants to be a footballer.

I keep coming back to the tuk tuks because they are literally everywhere! And so, this day, I survive my first-ever tuk tuk ride… I have determined that a tuk tuk ride through the streets of Delhi is as good an adrenaline rush as a roller coaster. This one had a big Om on the back window. Regardless of the implied security (doors, what doors?), we nearly lost our lives… 6 times minimum.

Even with millions of homeless in India, it is said that one cannot go hungry. If there is a Gurudwara (Sikh temple) nearby, regardless of caste or heritage you are invited in for a free meal. As seva, we hand-rolled chapati alongside the automatic chapati machine issuing forth dozens to our single-digit creations. Being part of the well-oiled machine that feeds thousands each day felt like the right thing to do.

Here, it seems everything is either for sale, negotiable or remedied with rupees. Case in point, muslim custom dictates that women should cover up in a mosque and that photos are not allowed. In Jama Masjid, one can pay a camera fee to bring in a camera (I am soon to find out that this is common at most tourist attractions – I’ve never seen that before!) and one can opt to a) walk past the guy asking you to cover up with a borrowed robe or b) use said borrowed robe to cover up and pay $10 rupees for the privilege. I was shuttled towards the guy by the queue, so had little choice in the matter.

The day continues with another couple of tuk tuk rides: from Connaught Place to India Gate, a blur of fog, color, hawkers, visitors (99.9% Desi – Indian) and preparations for an upcoming event…then back to our hotel to get ready for the next leg of the adventure: an overnight train to Jodhpur. I feel like I’m on the Amazing Race, and they’ve forgiven my not quite first class map-reading skills.

India, Day 1

I want to caveat this first… I am not a “tour” person. I like to travel, immerse myself in a culture,  meet local people, see the world through their eyes. India was so massive and daunting to me that for my first go at this place, I felt I needed a guide, and therefore a tour. I signed up for a tour through the most local-friendly company I could find, G Adventures, and embarked on their 15-day Rajasthan Adventure, adding a few days on my own at the end to explore in my own way. Rajasthan is where most of India’s history began, so it felt a fitting place to start…

December 21, 2014: Organized – no, synchronized – chaos.

Arrived in Delhi today… First impressions: smog, traffic, friendly faces, cows, cycle rickshaws, tuk tuks, scooters…all vying for a lane. What lanes? Horns, chaos and I’m in fucking India in the back of a taxi from the airport and breathing it in along with the smog, fog, sounds, smells… this is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg and it is hitting me in all my senses and from all directions.

Trucks, dressed up to party – tassles hanging and bling blinging. There’s one tall skinny guy standing motionless, like an iceberg or a human minaret, selling roses in the middle of this crazy racing traffic. And the children…there they are on the side of the road, in the dust, prepping his bouquets.

As we drive into Karol Bagh I recognize the overpass, and then the giant Hanuman statue, I’d seen in my Google searches. I feel like I am in the right place, because really where else on the planet could a 108′ Hanuman statue coexist with this chaos?

It’s so much noisier than I ever considered. The road signs are in Hinglish. There’s a alien-yet-familiar smoke-fog in the air. The myriad horns beep greetings and warnings in an alarmingly loud, yet rhythmic, cacophony. This is the score for Delhi’s ‘Synchronised Chaos Symphony #2’ (in Q minor).

My first shower in 2 days feels wonderful. And I think this: Delhi takes no prisoners and shows up 100%.