Monday, November 26, 2012

India introspection

I've been thinking a lot these last three months. When you travel solo you tend to do a lot of that, and India has been a gold mine of topics to think about. Like what is important to me. And how my capacity for change and for dealing with stress has surprised me. Right now, with one week left of my trip I am thinking about those things here in India I will miss when I go home. The things I'll be grateful to leave behind. And what I'm most looking forward to when I get back.

Quick list:

Things I'll miss from India...

* Invitations at nearly every shop to sit and have a cup of chai.
* Color everywhere I turn around.
* Paying the equivalent of fifty cents for a 2L bottle of water.
* Prices in general. I'm pretty sure I'm going to be shell shocked when I get home and am faced with the prices of things.
* The genuine friendliness of people as a whole.
* Kids. I can't get enough of how wickedly adorable the children are in this country. *Laughs*
* Enough sun to actually give ME a tan.
* The sense that I'm doing something with my life.
* OMG the food!!!
* Trains.
* Super inexpensive doctors and medicine!!!
* Haggling.
* Crazy ass motorcycle rides.
* Random gifts from total strangers.
* Laundry service so cheap I can afford to not do my own laundry!

Things I will NOT miss...

* Constant noise.
* Barrage of attention everywhere I go.
* Indian men.
* Pollution.
* How godawful filthy my fingernails get.
* Ditto feet. Manicure and pedicure are HIGH on my list of things I'll do in Delhi the day before I leave (cheaper than waiting til I get home!)
* Cold showers.
* Temperamental power.
* Iffy wifi.
* Hard beds.
* Mosquitoes. (Yes, I am actually thrilled it will be winter when I get home.)
* Foreigner vs Locals fees.
* Crazy ass driving.
* Not understanding 95% of what is being said around me.
* Having to carry toilet paper around with me.
* White bread.

Things I'm looking forward to from home...

* A LUSH vanilla bath bomb in a hot bath.
* Going to the movies!
* Steak, baked potato, and a huge salad.
* Cheeseburger.
* KRAFT Mac and cheese.
* Bacon and sausage.
* Coffee with lots of cream and sugar.
* Bottle of Champagne to celebrate being home again.
* Hugs hugs hugs hugs hugs hugs hugs from my friends.
* Ditto with cuddles.
* Gummy bears.
* Walking down the street and being virtually invisible.
* Space around me.
* My laptop.
* My teddy bear.
* A pair of comfy blue jeans.
* Familiarity with my environment.
* Dating again.
* Telling everybody about my awesome trip to India. :)
* Finding excuses to wear my sari.
* Celebrating the holidays with people I love.

Pushkar and the Pushkar Camel Festival

Oh my god.... This was even more awesome than I ever could have imagined. And I am so glad I decided to stay for the duration because not only did my ankle prevent me from being able to do everything all in a single day but also because there was just so much to see every day.

I have enjoyed meandering through the crowds of the bazaar, listening to calls of "nice tattoo" and ignoring the pleas for "no money, chapatti" from the begging children. Hearing the rumbles that warn of an approaching motorcycle. The popular elephant or camel chimes that dangle from practically every third shop that tinkle at the slightest breath or passing bicyclist. The chattering in many different languages. Drums and other musical instruments all through the day. Chanting. There is nowhere to go for even a moment of silence.

The entire town was just a burst of color... from the ever popular pashminas and clothes to the piles of red and orange powder you use to mark your forehead and various flowers (nasturtium, marigold, and orchid blossoms) to offer if visiting a temple. Saris and punjabi suits of every color imaginable make the women in the streets remind me of an explosion from a crayon box and I'll keep these images in my memory forever.

And the scents were enough to make me want to just stand still and close my eyes and try to identify each individual one. Spice and perfume shops. Incense burning at the temples and open air kitchens making my tummy rumble even if I'd just eaten. One particular stretch of the bazaar had three coffee shops offering REAL coffee, complete with that scent I hadn't realized til now I had missed so much. But not all scents were good. Men go to the nearest wall or corner to urinate, and one place even had "stalls" right there in public. I'd have to hold my breath every time I went by that particular location or find myself gagging and wanting to throw up. I have no idea how the people who run the shop across from it work in that stench day in and day out.

The town of Pushkar is situated around a small lake, considered extraordinarily holy to religious types. Holy men, both genuine and those just after your money, are there to lead you to the water and offer blessings. I managed to piss off one of these men when I went down and got a plate with powder, flowers and rice thrust into my hands. The man who took me down to the lake asked questions and started leading me in saying a blessing for my family until he reached the part where I was supposed to pledge a 7000 rupee donation to the temple for my family. I stopped him right there and said no, I am not saying that. He got all huffy at me and wanted to know how much I would give for the blessing. I had actually deliberately left my money in the hotel room that day and when I told him I had no money on me he got so angry! Started calling me a liar and telling me I'd be receiving bad karma for not giving to the temple. That I obviously have money to give or I wouldn't be traveling. I told him I would have been more than happy to come back another day to leave the temple an anonymous donation but how dare he accuse me of lying, that he is just a fraud out to steal from innocent tourists. He snatched the plate of stuff out of my hand and strode off. I couldn't believe that jackass. Another day I was at the lake up at the top of the steps, watching the lighting of all the oil lamps and prayers when a holy man gives me a flower and wants me to follow him down to the lake. I told him no, and showed him my wrapped ankle. He was pissed too. Around town you see a lot if holy men (wearing orange, usually) with little brass jars as they wander around hoping for donations. I was more likely to donate to them than to the predatory ones at the lake.

I don't know if this is just during the festival or if it's like this here all the time.... But you have to be careful taking pictures of people and I'm glad I prefer candid snapshots anyway. Many people, mostly women and girls dressed up in their finery but it has been a common practice for most people, come up and offer to have their picture taken. But then they want money in return. I am tempted to reverse it. Sooooo many people want my picture that I want to start asking for ten rupees for every photo. But I doubt I'd ever do that. It's truly not that irritating for me, and it really does appear to make these strangers' day to be allowed to take my picture. It's kind of flattering, actually.

All of this just as I walk from my hotel through the Bazaar and make my way out to the actual festival grounds.

The festival itself... *Smiles* Has been just as much a feast for my senses. I rode the rides, and I have never in my life been more scared than during the Dragon Boat ride. You know.. The ride where it swings back and forth and higher and higher til you're almost flying vertical on the high up and down swings. Back home, these rides have really major safety regulations. Bars and seats designed to protect you from falling out of the ride. Yeah, not even a seatbelt here. I had one hand gripping the seat in front of me and my arm curled along the back of my row of seats with my knuckles white from the tightness of my grip as I curled in on myself and tried not to scream in real terror. The kids seated a few rows behind me were so cavalier about the danger and laughed at my fear. But trust me, once was enough for me on that particular ride. And I've had nightmares every night since going on it a few days ago. Even the Ferris wheel was slightly scary due to the speed of the rotations and no door on the baskets. But the views were so worth the fear that I've gone up several times already and will probably go up again at least a few more times. For only 20 rupees a pop, it's cheap entertainment.

Most of the "action" happened in the big sand filled stadium. Locals vs Foreigners football match played in deep sand. Most of the players played barefoot. And foreigners won on penalty kicks! Go foreigners! *Laughs* I missed the camel race, and the camel and horse dancing. But I loved every second of the camel decorating contest. And the turban tying contest was chaotic and crowded and I couldn't see through the crowd. But I was able to get a pretty good view of the mustache contest, and that was simply awesome! One man (I'm pretty sure he was the winner, but I couldn't hear or see when the winners were announced so I don't know for sure) had a mustache so long he raised his arms up holding up the 'stache and it still dangled nearly to the ground!

This guy came in second place in the camel decorating contest...the camel, not me.
Everywhere you look there are camels. Decorated, waiting to be ridden. Decorated, hooked up to carts and being offered as "camel taxi, I give you good price!" Camels in the distance. Camels on leads. Baby camels. This festival often gathers as many as 50,000 camels. I heard this was a smaller year, yet I was still in awe of just how BIG everything was.

Hi, I'd like a tattoo with a side of hepatitis, please!
 More stalls and tents line the entire festival grounds. And if people don't have a tent they just lay their wares on a tarp on the ground. That includes men with inks, needles, and tattoo guns. Right there in the sand, offering tattoos. Never! That was my thought on how scary the thought of getting a tattoo like that was. I think I am reassured that while I've seen a half dozen or so of these "tattoo purveyors" not once have I seen anyone actually being inked. It makes me have hope that people are smarter than I often give them credit for.

I found an Israeli cafe, with very good and very cheap food. I've eaten there a lot. I checked out a rooftop restaurant recommended by the guide book. Expensive. And food wasn't even that good. Except the dessert. Their lemon tart was spectacular. I plan to go back one more time just for the tart.

With just one week left in India I have found myself slowing down til I'm ready to just curl up and wait for the 3rd. I'm ready to go home.


Looking back at it now I am very glad I gave myself time in Udaipur. Not because the city was particularly awesome, but because for the first half of my stay I was staying in the home of a couple who masqueraded as couch surfing hosts but in reality were more like an unofficial guest house and the house was a fair distance from the heart of town. I couldn't afford to get rickshaws every day if I wanted to save money (as I'd hoped to do by staying with this couple to begin with) and I also got rather tired of having no real privacy. So I faked a migraine and tried to at least get them to leave me alone so I could read or write in my journal in peace (it still didn't work, mind you, which irritated me). I did manage to get out a couple of times though with first one fellow guest and then another and walk around some, and what I saw was beautiful. But I needed to get the hell out of where I was staying if I wanted to enjoy my stay properly. And I am glad when my fellow guest also got fed up and also wanted to leave. I wasn't alone.

Now understand... My hosts weren't bad people, they were very nice, and the food was very good. But I expected something different from a couch surfing experience that I did not get here. And my final day they got into it with Gabe, my fellow guest, and I felt they kept dragging me into the middle and that did really piss me off. I will not call them friends, and while I felt that they did not understand or respect the philosophy behind couch surfing I am not going to leave a bad review of them on the site because they were at least upfront with me that staying with them would cost money. I went into it willingly.


The second half of my stay in Udaipur was marked by me spraining my ankle. Gabe and I had gone up to a hotel recommended to us by a number of people we'd met to see if they had any rooms, and when they did not we started back down the white marble stairs to check somewhere else. And I swear to you I was being careful on the stairs! I didn't want to slip and take a tumble. I had made it to the first landing and I stopped to look at the stairs in front of me, to see if the landing was flat or if it had a step there and it LOOKED I took a step and twisted my ankle in the fall. I ended up sitting on a stair for a good twenty minutes before I could handle moving. Gabe went out on his own to see if he could find a hotel with a couple of rooms, and I went back up to the hotel's rooftop restaurant to wait in relative comfort as my poor ankle throbbed. Luckily I've sprained my ankles enough times to know when a sprain is mild or serious, and I could tell this was a mild sprain. I just had to be careful with it.

Because of Diwali being the next day Gabe was having trouble finding a hotel that could fit both of us, so we agreed to split up. And the manager of the hotel I was at offered to make phone calls for me to help me with my search, since I couldn't exactly wander around on my own at that point. He found me a room within my budget at a hotel not far from where we were, and after hobbling my way over and having my stuff brought over by another hotel employee I spent the rest of the day with my ankle propped up with some ice on it that was provided by the guy at the front desk.

The next day was Diwali, and I really wanted to see things. That morning I had wandered a bit and met a group of Kiwis who invited me to join them that evening for a party. And since I had the pretty sari from Jaisalmer I decided it was the perfect day to dress up. So after going back to my hotel and resting a bit I called down to reception and asked if there was a woman around who might be able to help me put on a sari. The guy sent up his mother, and she had fun dressing me up. And oh it was awesome... So often on this trip the constant attention and comments frustrate me and make me yearn for invisibility but on this particular day I reveled in it. Tons of smiles, and namastes, and "happy Diwali" were exchanged and nearly everyone said how much they liked my sari. That I looked just like an Indian woman. *Laughs* I couldn't pass for Indian if I tried, but it was still lovely.

I wandered around perhaps more than I should have given the state of my poor ankle when I finally got home that night, but I really loved looking at all the lights and enjoyed the party atmosphere that surrounded me. Fireworks and various fire cracked set off from the street. People sharing sweets. And I just never stopped smiling. Met up with the Kiwis and we joined a few other travelers for beers and "special" lassis before calling it a night. It was a great time.

The rest of the following week had a pretty basic rhythm to it. I'd wander over to Dream Heaven (the hotel I where I had sprained my ankle) and hobble my way up to the comfortable rooftop restaurant. I'd have breakfast, enjoy the free wifi, and get my bearings. I'd maybe wander across the footbridge and explore town for an hour or two. Then back to my hotel to rest. In the evening I'd find a place for dinner and explore a little more, and then back to my hotel to ice my ankle and get some sleep. I am so glad I gave myself the time there, because I never felt rushed and was able to give my ankle time it needed to do some healing before I went on to Pushkar. I didn't know how much walking if be doing there but I anticipated a lot. So I wanted my ankle as rested as possible.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

An interesting bus ride

There is no train from Jodhpur to a Udaipur, so instead I went by bus. Even though technically there were assigned seats, because so few people were there the morning I left Jodhpur the guy said I could sit anywhere. It was a sleeper bus, which means that in addition to normal seats on one side of the aisle there were also sleeping berths above the seats and stacked on the other side of the aisle. I think maybe twelve berths total? Only one seat did not have something overhead, and that was in the very back right on the aisle. So I picked that seat. Plus.. Added bonus of having room to stretch out my legs!

One thing I had not realized about sitting in the back of the bus... When we hit a bump I would go FLYING! I don't know if the busses in India even know what shocks are. *Laughs* but it was fun. Like an amusement park ride.

I don't know how long I was on the bus before the big crowd boarded. I also don't know if it was one big family or a group of families, but wow there were a lot of people! And since the most room was back where I was, that's where they all headed. Most of them climbed up into the berths... men, women, and kids crowded together. One man had no "inside voice" and so was doing all his talking in a mighty roar. And with his crazy eyes and wild hair I was reminded of a character from the movie Lagaan. My sister Tracy will probably know who I'm talking about.

The hotel I'd stayed at had given me not only my breakfast to go, but the breakfast of two other people who never showed. Since I didn't need three breakfasts, and couldn't eat the bananas anyway (allergic), I offered the food to the people around me. It was accepted with many smiles in return.

Two kids immediately took a shine to me and they climbed up and sat with me for the whole ride. And naturally, I don't speak Hindi and they don't speak English but we had a great time nonetheless. Several women a bit further up had a very cute child asleep on their laps, and when I smiled at them they motioned for me to come forward. I did, and again with no shared langauge we managed to have a great conversation. Then another lady reached out of her berth up above (she'd been listening to us) and offered me a bead necklace as a gift. And as by this point it was nearing lunch time, another woman pulled out her homemade lunch and offered me some. Chapatti and some sort of cooked chillies. Ooooh they were tasty! Spicy as hell, yes, and everybody got a good chuckle out of watching me eat the chillies. But damn I really enjoyed myself.

I pulled out my iPad and showed everyone the pictures I had of my family, and then they wanted to also see my trip photos. People were dangling out of berths to watch the slideshow and everyone had fun shouting out the places they recognized in my pictures. I eventually went back to my seat at the back of the bus and read my book and listened to my iPod. I was listening to my dad's CDs, so I offered the kids my earbuds and let them hear my dad singing and they seemed to like it.

They didn't stay all the way through to Udaipur though, so when they all got off the bus truly seemed like a dead zone without all the chatter and energy. It had been a lot of fun, and I even ended up with a pretty necklace to remember it by!

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Jodhpur was... disappointing

I think I found Jodhpur off putting right from the start for several reasons.

1) It was eleven at night, I was tired, it was very dark, and a large group of men crowded around me at the train station as I was looking for the person who was supposed to have a sign with my name on it who would take me to my hotel. This was actually the first time in India I actually felt unsafe. These men were staring, and not the usual stares. These were predatory, like a pack of hyenas. And they were surrounding me, crowding me, practically pressed up against me from every direction. And they were talking in Hindi... I knew they were talking about me but I had no idea what they were saying. I eventually burst into tears and shouted "get the fuck away from me!" I couldn't help it. I was so upset.

2) There was no man with a sign with my name on it, waiting to take me to my hotel. I don't know who is to blame, as both the tour company in Delhi (fucking IIRC) and the hotel blamed the other. Due to my bad experiences I leaned toward believing the hotel, but I was still angry. And pretty much demanded a refund for the cost of the rickshaw, because the cost of a pick-up was included in my stay.

3) The hotel I stayed at that first night had bedbugs. And I'm sorry, but no. Not for a place I'm paying that much a night for.

IIRC did go ahead and switch hotels for me the next day, and the new place was very nice. Comfortable, actually near things, and respectful. But I was already upset and did not bother doing a whole lot of exploring beyond the main market area and taking an afternoon to sketch the clock tower.

I'm glad I was only scheduled for a couple of days there, and was glad to leave. It's the only place so far in India outside of Kashmir I've had that much of a bad reaction to. So I'm going to write it off, shrug it off, and believe it was just an anomaly and not me slowing down and losing my ability to cope at the end of my trip.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Golden city of Jaisalmer

I'll post pictures when I have wifi again, but for now I just wanted to write about how much I adored Jaisalmer. After more than two months in India it has so far been the highlight of my trip. My favorite city. The place I most want to go back to visit again and again.

Jaisalmer is the farthest west city in Rajasthan, deep in the Thar Desert. Its nickname of the "Golden City" comes from the fort that perches up over the city. Made of yellow sandstone, it glows in the desert sun and reflects light just as if it had been made of gold.

I stayed at a delightful hotel just outside of the fort, called the Hotel Royale. It's much more expensive than I would normally pay but it was part of the bad mistake I made in Delhi letting the IIRC book part of my trip in advance. Since I didn't feel like fighting to get the full refund if I had canceled everything I just sucked it up and enjoyed the nice hotels for a little while.

The hotel was not only comfortable and colorful, but the staff was delightful! On Halloween night, feeling lonely and restless, I went to the hotel manager to ask if he had any recommendations on where I could go to be around people. I ended up on the back of his brother's motorbike heading up into the fort to the family's home. I spent the evening as part of the family. Playing with kids. Drinking chai. Talking. Petting the family cow (who knew that cows enjoyed having the backs of their ears scratched?). And when I mentioned wishing I could try on a sari, Ajay and his wife took me upstairs to their bedroom and his wife dressed me up in one of her sarees! I was so delighted, and couldn't stop smiling and laughing. And I was full of such pure joy that Ajay's wife and mother went out and bought me a sari of my own as a gift to remember them by. *smiles* I was struck truly speechless by this generosity. And couldn't help but hug Ajay's mother. I now have a blouse and petticoat to wear with the sari, so I will be wearing it proper for the first time on Diwali. I figure that'll be a good opportunity to dress up!

Another highlight of Jaisalmer were hanging out at the textiles shop I ended up at after meeting a guide up in the fort. I purchased a custom made jacket from there, and also got the blouse and petticoat made. But mostly I spent time just sitting inside, drinking chai and talking to the men who worked there as well as the many locals who would drop in. On my last day I pulled out my sketchbook and drew the inner wall (complete with tapestries and a poster of Ganesh over the front door). My guide took me on his bike all over the city. We dropped into a silversmith's shop, where I ordered a custom silver pendant made. I now have the compass rose I have been wanting. And we went to several shops and I drank more chai than I have ever had in my life, and looked at crafts that I wished I could buy. Perhaps when I have an apartment of my own again (and money to shop with!) I will come back to Jaisalmer and buy all those things I just dreamed of buying on this trip.

One thing that I enjoyed (though it wasn't as much fun as I had expected it to be) was the camel safari I went on. For one thing, I guess I am more afraid of heights than I tend to think I am. Camels are WAY taller once you're on top of them than they appear when you're safely standing on the ground. And the way they walk is so odd that I was afraid I would fall off! It took until the next day for my hands to stop shaking, and my anxiety was so high that I couldn't bear going out again after dinner that night and surrounding myself in darkness. So I missed sleeping out under the stars. But oh my god the desert during daytime was beautiful! I can't listen to anybody who says the desert is a dead, colorless place. Because when I looked around all I saw was beauty. The light playing on the sand. The desert plants with roots so deep they remained green even after a lackluster monsoon season. Birds and insects and animals everywhere I looked (I saw two antelope, but they were too fast for me to catch with my camera). And sunset from the dunes was magical.

My guide was a delightful man. 40 years old, who had never been anywhere but this desert. No education to speak of, just 25 years of experience as a guide. His dream is to save enough money so he can buy some land of his own and have his own well and be able to send his own four children to school so they will grow up able to read and write. So simple! I would love to spend more time with this man, and wish I could have met his family. I would love to bring paper and books and teach them all to read and write. That would be something to remember forever.

I spent 4 nights in Jaisalmer, and I want so badly to go back. It wasn't peaceful in the slightest. And the chaos would normally drive me batty. But Jaisalmer was magical. It felt like I'd dropped smack dab into the middle of an Arabian fairy tale. I could have stayed there for a lot longer.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Pink City of Jaipur

The Bad:

Travel from Mumbai to Jaipur was a 22 hour exhausting move, and I arrived late, sick, tired, and out of money because the India Information and Reservation Centre had yet again failed to get me the money they'd owed me since mid-September and the PayPal transfer wouldn't arrive for another couple of days and the cost to get to the train station in Mumbai was WAY more than I'd expected. So when I get told that the hotel I was supposed to be booked in had overbooked and I was to be schlepped over to another hotel for the night I pretty much lost all ability to keep cope together and burst into tears.

To be fair, the Hotel Rajputana Haveli did the best they could to help me under these very trying circumstances and dealing with a hysterical woman could not be on their list of favorite things ever. They comped me dinner at the hotel and the manager contacted the IIRC about my money and was very helpful in me eventually getting it in my hands. But the person who most helped me was a driver who goes by the nickname of Janu. He gave me some emergency money to tide me over for a few days, and he gave me contacts at the police and the tourist bureau who would help me if the IIRC didn't come through with my refund. He gave me a friend I could call if I needed help in any way. But on my final night there even that wasn't enough to help stave off the sinking depression all the stress pulled me into. I remember emailing my best friend and just spilling my guts about how scared I was and how sick and how worried about everything I was if I didn't get that refund.

I was also very sick again, so earlier that day I'd walked (ok, stumbled) to a doctor who said I didn't have malaria just a bad infection. I used my last emergency money to pay for medicine and then I spent the whole day delirious with fever. (Three days later and I'm back to feeling good again).

My final day I was still fighting with IIRC about my money. They owed me 26,000 rupees but they were only going to give me 10,000 (later 15,000) with the promise of the rest "later." I told them no, full refund. It wasn't until I was in the rickshaw on my way to the police that I got them to promise me my full refund immediately. So I went back to the hotel and waited and then got all money in hand. I nearly cried with relief that it was all over.

The Good:

Jaipur is stunningly unique and I swear you can find anything there in the shops along the various bazaars. And yes, so many of the buildings really are pink! I understand the nickname now, *laughs*. Because I was sick for much of my stay there I didn't get to see or do as much as I'd hoped. But I did wander around for one afternoon, and even had some shop owners pull out a chair and keep me supplied in chai and water while I sketched the Hawa Mahal (Palace of the Winds) from the comfort of shade. A bunch of people took my photo, including a newspaper man! My picture was in the paper the next day (too bad I was too sick to remember and get a copy to save.) When I was done (my hand gave out on me and the sun had moved so I was getting overheated) one of the young men from the shop then showed me a secret place up high through one of the temples where I could get a truly stunning view of the palace. I'll never forget that place. Drawing it just etched it even more firmly in my memory.

I also got up to the Amber Fort, which I found to be well worth the 200 rupee entrance fee. I managed to find a super nice rickshaw driver to take me there, and several times he stopped or slowed down so I could take photos from the road. And since neither of us had change for the ride we agreed he'd pick me up when I was ready to leave and I'd pay him then. Got his cell phone number to call when I was ready.

So... the fort. From the outside you don't see the stunning tile details and silver working that decorated the inside. I spent a good three hours exploring, with about half an hour of it sketching one of the inner walls. I could have spent a full day there. I wish I had had more time but it closed at sunset. So I made sure to take photos of what I had been sketching because I wanted to go back and add the color when I had time.

My train wasn't until 11, so I had time to return to the hotel for a final meal and Internet usage and finished my sketch before grabbing another rickshaw to take me to Gandhi Nagra train station, where I waited for the train that would take me on to Jaisalmer.