Two years ago today, I set off on the trip that would become the one to which I compare most others. After a whirlwind stopover in London, I was officially en route to Delhi, which was start and end to an almost 3-week adventure in Rajasthan.
I didn’t climb K2 or bathe in the Ganges; nor did I do yoga or a meditative retreat in an ashram in Rishikesh. Instead, I did sun salutations on the marble floor of a renovated haveli in Jodhpur on Christmas morning, to the sounds of a goat bleating to be let into the hotel’s lobby. I drank hand-brewed chai from a terra cotta cup on a dirt road in a dusty village market in Jojawar. I drank Kingfishers and danced to Bollywood music wearing a kurta (and a bindi) on New Year’s Eve in Jaipur. I walked the market streets of Pushkar before the bustling day began, to be blessed by a Brahmin priest by the magical Pushkar Lake. I got lost coming home from a mind-bending trip the Swaminarayan Akshardam in Delhi. I rode a camel; haggled for deals in markets; visited forts built in the middle ages; saw new puppies and starving dogs; smiled and shared tea with strangers; travelled on an overnight train; inhaled the aromas of amazing street food as well as those of the human condition; saw Delhi’s famed smog as well as its blue skies; tasted the best jalebi and samosas and aubergine curry and lassi and dosas I’ve ever had…and, yes, I saw the Taj Mahal. The toilet story was the best of that day, tho.
India was an experience for every physical sense, plus some senses I didn’t know how to tap into until I came home and began reflecting.
As I think about the coming year and begin to plan the shells of future wanders and adventures I wanted to share India Day 1, my first blog post and in it, the words that fail to adequately depict the shell shock that is one’s first contact with the entity that is India. [I hope you enjoy reading that post as much as I did writing it.]
Ten days before I left, I met a stranger who, unbeknownst to me at the time, would play an invaluable role in my world in the ensuing months.
Weeks later, when I returned from half a planet away, I found myself jet-lagged, profoundly inspired, partially in love (with a place and perhaps also a human) and wholly vulnerable—all in ways I had not foreseen… [READ MORE]
Jaipur, in the waning light of 2014. Jaipur is an old walled-in city within a new, bustling metropolis. The charm and the chaos of the ancient Old City market, with its touts and hawkers and fabric/bangle/pocketbook/toy/knick-knack/clothing/shoe/tea/spice/pan stalls is an assault to the senses. You can smell the old city’s streets, hear the horns and bells and calls of the sellers….”meeess, meeess…buy theeess…” You can almost taste the roadside snacks and the grit of the commotion. The colors are explosive, almost fireworks and magic against the dark streets and gray skies. You can feel the frenetic energy vibrating throughout your body. Our contingent of international travellers haggles furiously and we’re pleased with the deals we’ve struck. Kurtis for the night’s festivities. Bags of presents for friends and family back home. We have learned to say no to the hawkers and dismiss the beggars without feeling the shame or heartbreak for not helping those in need.
Reminders of the days of purdah are in every city. The Great Façade that is Jaipur’s Hawa Mahal is essentially a tall viewing stand for the women of the city so they could watch festivals and goings-on in the street without being seen. Stories high, this structure looks like a dainty sandstone fortress rising from the chock-a-block street below. As with many of these centuries-old buildings here, it doesn’t even look real.
The new year’s festivities begin at a local family’s home, where the woman of the house gives cooking demonstrations and serves a magnificent feast for the travel-weary troops. From this and watching the chai wallahs, I’ve learned how to make authentic chai…the real masala tea that contains hand-mashed ginger and cardamom, boiled milk and spices and tea powder and sugar. Pure Indian love poured from a steaming pot. This is one certainty: I will miss this when I return to my western reality. Chai and hand-rolled chapatis, garlicky naan and homemade paneer… I know I’ve passed the Indian spice test when I embrace the mouth-tingling feeling the hand-crushed red chilis add to a masala curry.
A Bollywood-ish New Year’s Eve party. We wore bindis and kurtas and Rajasthan-made shoes. We danced to Bollywood hits, drank local beer and laughed. One of my most carefree and light new year’s eves in ages, with balloons and party horns and those clicker things…. the music was loud and it somehow overpowered the horns and tuk tuks and general Jaipur din emanating from the street below. We were a kingfisher-infused motley crew, representing most of the 7 continents. New Year’s has no ethnicity.
Indian men hold hands here. It is for camaraderie and connection and maybe just that nice feeling of holding hands, as there are few women around and also this is a conservative part of the country where public displays of affection are still frowned upon. They also, unlike the States, dance together (Bollywood style)… they all know the moves and if they don’t, well, they make them up. It makes for a wildly entertaining spectacle. Women (en masse) are invited up to dance with the men – much like a summer camp social – and guarded by their male friends, cousins, brothers and (in our case) tour guides. This a horny and male-dominated culture, with Kama Sutra roots. Combine that with a conservative state of mind and there is bound to be trouble. Rapes, violence against women…the dark side of this always-smiling, dancing and singing mass of bodies.
India is loud and in your face. So maybe an even more unique experience than Times Square was this semi-Bollywood celebration of New Year’s Eve. This is India. So just before, or maybe a minute after midnight, as we westerners were checking our phones for the precisely correct time to start the countdown to midnight(ish), the lights and sound went out. The din evaporated. And in that 2 or 4 or 42 seconds that the lights and music were dark, with the smell of bonfires in the air, I realised that instead of counting down a year that was, or to a year that was to be, that a big reset button was pressed.
The night continued on, but it felt like we were in that limbo time between the realities of yesterday and the possibilities of tomorrow. There was no talk of resolutions or unachievable expectations for envisioned tomorrows…there was just that feeling in the air of weightless possibility and a celebration of that which is now… This is India. Regardless of the noise and the chaos and the cows and dogs and monkeys and tuk tuks and trash and bumpy roads and funny little Indian men singing Justin Bieber songs at midnight, there is now and there is light. And as ridiculous and absurd and amazing as this place is, there is this pervasive feeling that Now is what matters.
Pushkar is this quirky little city, and it is revered as one of the most sacred pilgrimage sites in India. Pushkar Lake is said to have formed from a lotus flower dropped by Lord Brahma. He built temples to his two wives, Savitri and Gayitri, in Pushkar. Savitri temple is the highest because she is his ‘true’ wife, and should be worshiped first and foremost over Gayitri. Read a snapshot of the story here. Pilgrims flock to the lake to bathe in its holy waters, to be blessed by Brahmin priests, to picnic on the ghat steps and renew.
It seems an oddly contradictory city, which sweetly grows on you the more time you spend here. There are fake sadhus and gurus who will take your money. These pseudo-holy men wait by the lake or in the throngs at the market and befriend, then extort, an innocent would-be pilgrim who is just there to find peace. Yet there are pilgrim’s (read: tourist’s) rules to abide when just walking in the streets. No public displays of affection. Women must be covered. No shoes within 30 feet of Pushkar Lake. No drinking. No drugs. All veg, all the time.
The market streets of Pushkar are like a flea market on a Sunday afternoon. With cows. And camels. And dogs. And chai wallahs. And monkeys. There are hawkers of every color in the rainbow, selling every possible trinket imaginable: Rajasthani swords and puppets. Bangles and tinkling anklets. Holy texts and scarves and spices and camel jewelry (and people jewelry) and prayer beads. There are tourists and pilgrims and wandering cows by the dozen in this sacred city. Women in the market sell bunches of grass to feed the cows as a karmic offering. One wonders whether the offering becomes less sacred when it’s a commodity.
The chanting in the background prevails at all hours of the day and thus provides an ancillary soundtrack to this city. There is the buzzing frenzy of the market, yet by the lake it is a veritable oasis within a city altogether. The buzz fades and the vibrations of myriad oms resonate deeply. It is mesmerizing, enchanting. The monkeys are as reverent as the pilgrims, making their offerings to their deities (or perhaps reaping the pilgrims’ spoils) and bathing in the lake’s holy waters alongside the pilgrims. Marble tiles lead to the terraced landings of each of the 52 ghats (the marble steps that lead down to Pushkar Lake), each ghat carrying its own spiritual significance, character and style. I was transfixed by the light at different times of day as it hit the lake. Here, lake-watching beats people-watching, as observing the comings and goings of devotees is a soothing meditation in itself. I partake in a morning blessing ritual by the lake, honouring ancestors and willing wishes to come true. Orange good luck threads tied to my wrist serve as fraying soft cotton reminders of the light on the lake and the Sanskrit blessings bestowed by the Brahmin priest.
The climb to the top of the Savitri temple revealed a meh-worthy sunrise through the hazy morning sky, though the chai served by the temple attendant at the top was worth the early wake-up call. Monkeys posed for photos in the breaking morning light. It was lovely.
A trip to the desert is not complete without the ultimate tourist act: a camel ride. So into the desert we ride, culminating with dinner, gypsy dancing and a magic show in an open corral in the middle of the desert. Dressed in gypsy clothes, we ate and laughed and danced into the cool desert night.
The haveli mansions of the Rajput families stand out from the stone and stucco buildings with their intricate latticework and gates, painted facades and romantic windows. If I wasn’t already, I think I fell in love with India in Udaipur. Times Square meets The Flintstones. Venice meets Bollywood. Palaces and henna and food and kingfishers (the beer; the birds we save for a later date)…oh, my!
This was a funny day… it started with bleating. A goat tried to get into the lobby of the hotel. He was thwarted of course, but the hooves and the bleating and the hotel manager’s yelling trying to get him out… And so I woke up laughing. Today we toured the fabulous palace on the lake. Meandered through the old town and appreciated its happy chaos. I bought a Rajasthani miniature painting, had a Ganesha painted on my fingernail by a miniature master and had my hand hennaed. Today was a good day.
Rajasthan in general, and Udaipur specifically, is famous for its miniature paintings. These artisans use meticulous skill to paint in minuscule detail on every square inch (centimeter) of the canvas, be it silk or antique paper, resulting in micro-masterworks accented in gold or silver, using cow urine and vegetable dyes as paint colouring. Their brushes are hand-made from squirrel fur (apparently, one must distract the squirrel with a nut or sweet in order to snip its tail hairs…this is a process in itself!). These paintings tell the stories of Mewar (Udaipur) royal families, of hunts and of love. Three symbols depict Rajasthan: the horse (for power), the elephant (for luck) and the camel (for love). Legend has it that if you can love (the smell of) a camel, you can love anyone! These spirits run deep in this area and you see paintings of these icons everywhere.
In this place where the moon lays on its back to ask for a belly rub, the sun sets on a palace and the city by the lake draws you in and grabs you by the heart chakra.
Dinner was the best food yet, eaten sitting on a balcony overlooking the lake; we stayed to drink Kingfisher beers and laughed for what seemed like hours. A tuk tuk is always an adventure. Riding with 3 new friends with a head full of beer is the best kind. The back roads of Old Town Udaipur are narrow. There are cows, motor bikes, more tuk tuks, dogs, goats and cars… Driving: the dodging and weaving, slowing and gunning it, is an artform here. Also the backing up and maneuvering around said road obstacles in order to get to our destination. Happy chaos.
Though (maybe because?) I have become more acclimated to this foreign land and more accustomed to the numbers – of people, cows, horns, dogs, all the stuff…the rhythms of each city and village we visit become more evident – the rhythms of everyday life thunder within, like absorbing the pulse or the heartbeat of this overwhelming yet enrapturing place. The absurdities of everyday life become tolerable. Even here where the absurd seems much more evident to the outsider, it becomes an important part of the pulse, like comic relief and even a necessity akin to the air we need to breathe. India is a place where you must pay attention. You must be present. You must allow. Chaos is going to happen whether you participate or not, whether you fight it or not. So amidst the the debris and noise and chaos, there is this pervasive sense of humility and OK-ness. This, I suppose, can be interpreted as peace. Like the lotus which thrives amidst and maybe even in spite of the debris on the surface, its roots reach down to find that grounded place to take hold.
*Note: I should address the swastika here. You see swastikas everywhere on entrances to buildings, temples, homes and havelis. In Sanskrit, the word svastika is a symbol of good fortune, luck, strength and is used as a talisman of good luck and well-being. That the Nazis maligned the sentiment is light years beyond an understatement.