April 16, 2011

You cannot come to India without going to Rajasthan. Beginning in Jaipur, one of the three cities of India’s Golden Triangle, I launched myself into a land where its people are rugged and weathered in a way that makes me think of old American Westerns, its royalty is exotic and extravagant, and the cities recall a true age of kings. It is a land of elephants and camels, colorful turbans and big moustaches, vast deserts and holy lakes, and a wealth of culture that few places can match.

And it is on a well-traveled tourist circuit, so it is a little less rough around the edges than much of the rest of India. Actually, I have to admit that all of Rajasthan’s beautiful hotels and stunning cities started to erode my rugged traveler, six-months-on-the-road, sleep-anywhere street cred I was building up. But it was worth it.

I went everywhere. Jaipur was great, with its nearby Amber Fort being one of the largest forts in Rajasthan. From Jaipur I headed down to Pushkar, a small town with a big ex-pat and hippie community nestled around one of India’s holiest lakes, where I got to watch India beat Pakistan in the cricket World Cup, and then party like crazy in the streets. Then Jodhpur, where I saw one of the most magnificent forts in Rajasthan and through different audio tours and galleries, started to fall in love with the royal family. From Jodhpur I went to Jaisalmer, which is a city nestled deep in the Thar Desert. Here I went on a spectacular overnight camel safari that totally defined my trip in Rajasthan. And then a second visit to Udaipur to get to spend some time in India’s most romantic city. And finally, some trekking in Mt. Abu.

Because I think the essence of Rajasthan is a bit too difficult to capture after-the-fact, I thought I would just let my collection of notes I took on the way tell the story:

-India-Pakistan semi-final cricket match today. Its like a holiday – no one is out and everyone is around the closest TV.  Its night now and Pakistan is batting, and every time we get a wicket, the crowd erupts into a chaotic bout of dancing, drumming, and fireworks. Insane.

-We won! The streets are insane. Unsafe really. So much dancing, fireworks, yelling, jumping, laughing. Amazing.

-In Jodhpur I fell in love with the royal family. In Jaisalmer, I am falling in love with the city itself.

-Rajasthan truly is the land of color. Its not so much that its more colorful than other parts of India, but it’s the juxtaposition. The tan and brown that’s pervasiveness is always present in the countryside of Rajasthan, like a scene in a Clint Eastern western, coupled with the vibrant reds and yellows of the saris and turbans truly make it a land of color.

-Jaisalmer is stunning. The town itself is different than most. There are no trees, lots of yellow sandstone, and real quality architecture everywhere you look. Up in the fort, it is truly magical. Narrow little alleys, countless shops, ancient details, both old and new, old wooden doors, beautiful fabrics, all in a stunning gold uniformity. So, so beautiful.

-Spent the past two days on the back of a camel. A bit taxing on the body, but good for the soul. The silence, at those rare moments, was beautiful – it was the kind where you can hear the ocean in your ears. And the stars, oh the stars; only a few times in my life have I seen stars like that. Shooting stars dashing across a tapestry so beautiful only god could have made it. And seeing all the little trails of footprints around our blankets on the sand dunes in the morning, completely covering everywhere, all that remains of such an active night of hunting, gathering, searching, hiding, mating, and surviving – only to be wiped away by the first few morning gusts of winds. Getting to lead my own camel, Rainbow (I didn’t pick the name obviously). Jeffrey, our stray dog, (who we did get to pick the name for) who found us in the beginning and stayed loyally by our side the whole trip. And amazing fireside conversations with Meng, Natasha, Amy, and Philip about life, god, religion, and politics. An experience to remember.

-Best fruit smoothie I have had in probably all of India at the “Refreshing Point” resturaunt. It was a “mixed fruit smoothie” that was not so fruity but so, so good. And big. So good I ordered a second. 60rs.

-Went on a trek this morning into the beautiful wilderness of Mt. Abu. At times I felt like I was in a movie – the landscape was stunning, and at the peaks you could see for miles through the surrounding Rajasthani countryside. Unreal.

-I love this notebook.

Uttar Pradesh and Holi

April 14, 2011

Uttar Pradesh. Often called the “Cow Belt,” an apt reference to America’s “Bible Belt,” is the heartland of Hinduism in India. It is the homeland of much of the country’s migrant workforce and some of India’s greatest history. And I got to see a bit of it all. I started in Varanasi, which is now one of my favorite places in India. It is one of the oldest living cities in the world and Hinduism’s holiest city. I was struck most by Varanasi’s truly harmonious relationship with the great River Ganges; life alongside the river is life at its most vibrant – people washing clothes, bathing, strolling, playing cricket, selling trinkets, making pujas, and burying dead. I often try to spend at least a half hour sitting in one spot in every city I visit, just to watch life go by for a while. In Varanasi, I spent seven hours sitting on one of the Ghats, and I could have done the same thing every day for the next week if I had the time. The people’s relationship with their river is something I am not sure how to describe; it is almost a familiar relationship, as if the river gives itself, and in return, its people give their love and respect. It sounds cheezy, but somehow, it’s true. There is only one other city in the world I have been to that has come close to this kind of relationship with nature, and that is Venice. But Venice somehow does not compare – it lacks the reverence that Varanasi has for its river. It lacks the love.

And as if it couldn’t get better, I was in Varanasi for Holi. India’s famous color festival, held every year in March (March 20th this year), is a full day of total colorful chaos. I spent the day getting attacked by kids, attacking kids, laughing with my friend Rob about the insanity of it, dancing like a madman with the other madmen in the street, and loving every second of it. I am not sure I can really do it justice, but the photos help a bit.

Unfortunately, I eventually had to leave Varanasi, so after four days I packed up and headed north to Kushinigar, a small dusty Buddhist town in the middle of nowhere. I had already spent an afternoon in Sarnath while in Varanasi, and this was the third of the three great Buddhist pilgrimage sites in India. It is a small peaceful village sprinkled with some monasteries and the stupa where Buddha is cremated. It was a beautifully peaceful and spiritual way to spend a few days.

But with the good always comes the bad, and I guess fate decided I was having too much fun. So just before leaving Kushinigar for Agra, a trip that involved a two hour local-bus ride, a five hour train ride, and then another six hour night train, I got dreadfully sick. It was my first (and so far, only – knock on wood) bout with food poisoning, and let me tell you, 14 hours of fever-induced hallucination and intense stomach issues while traveling is not fun. Thankfully someone somehow gave me some paracetamol at the end of my train ride, so I got rid of the fever, but I was confined to my hotel room for the next two days straight. Luckily I made friends with Noel during one of my trips to try to eat some dal and rice in the hotel restaurant, and he gave me the push (and some herbal medicine) to get me out of the hotel. So, on my third day in Agra, I finally saw the great Taj Mahal. And it is everything it is described to be; a majestic, monolithic building, perfectly proportioned, with intricate detailing and a stunning landscape. Truly a masterpiece. A brilliant way to end my time in a beautiful part of the country.

The Age of Kali: Part 2

April 13, 2011

My post “The Age of Kali” was a very emotional one. It was a post that I spent a long time working on to get it to the point that accurately reflected what I felt. Of course I was curious to get some opinions on it to see how it would stand up. So I had a series of conversations with Sunny, during which he inspired me to write a second post to augment the first. Through Sunny, I discovered a new side of India. A proud one. A nationalist one. One vastly different to that of what my own is. It was the kind of discovery that alters the way you look at the world.

As a traveler you exist in a place for a single point in time. Your impressions are made based on that single point, perhaps augmented by things you have read or heard before traveling. And this is a beautiful thing; your impressions are uninhibited by certain kinds of baggage of biases. But of course, it is also a flawed thing, as this world and the places you visit do not exist in a single point in time, but rather over a much longer course of history. And so the impressions of a traveler are singular ones, ones that lack the benefit of time. They are extremely subjective ones. And that is what “The Age of Kali” is – a subjective post. A subjective post based on the experiences a subjective traveler. And of course a blog, and human existence while we are at it, is a forum for subjectivity; in a way that is its very essence.

But combine the impression of a subjective traveler with the impression of a subjective resident, and suddenly you have a bit more objectivity. And my God, how different an impression that is.

The biggest point of contention in “The Age of Kali” for Sunny is the last sentence, and in particular the word “squandered.” And he is right. While the sentence is not wrong, it is of course not the whole picture. It is perhaps the biggest casualty to my own subjectivity in that post. And so I would like to add another thought, a thought that is far outside the single traveler’s point of view, a thought that is far removed from not just my, but most travelers in India. With as much as India is being squandered, it is still moving forward. It is still making progress. This idea is something that I cannot see. It is something based on time, a luxury I do not have. It is a point of truth I am grateful for, because it allows me to see this country in a different light, a light with a bit more hope, a bit more appreciation. I will be able to look at slums and see not only the trash and squalor, but also the new power lines running above the streets and the TV’s shining through the gaps in the cardboard. And that makes the world of difference. I hope my newfound awareness of my limited conception of time will make me a better traveler, not just here in India, but wherever I go.