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Trip 9 -- Western India

Message 2: Jaisalmer to Udaipur

Date: Mon, 28 Feb 2005 00:28:40 -0500
From: seth@sethweinstein.com (Seth Weinstein)
Subject: India update #2: Jaisalmer to Udaipur

The traffic in the narrow streets of the 850-year-old desert city of Jaisalmer, in northwestern Rajasthan, was a fascinating mix of pedestrians, belching auto-rickshaws, motorcycles, pushcarts, scruffy black pigs, and stray dogs, goats, and cows. Other than the pedestrians, the most numerous were the cows. No one actually owns them, but it's residents' collective duty to look after them (even if that means simply not hitting them with a motorcycle). They can be seen eating such nutritious items as plastic bags, hats, and newspapers - though we saw one aggressive specimen successfully steal some scallions from a vegetable seller, who was not amused. They're generally docile creatures, and Erica was fond of petting them - until one with especially long horns decided to retaliate.

With its imposing fort, built in 1156 and accessible only by a narrow, twisting roadway, Jaisalmer is at any time a picturesque and enthralling city, but our visit happened to coincide with the Desert Festival, held for three days each February. The festival featured turban-tying competitions for Indians and foreigners (the former for speed, the latter for looks), moustache competitions, foreigner-versus-Indian tug-of-wars, and a round of kabaddi - an Indian sport not terribly unlike a combination of tag and capture the flag: There are two teams, separated by a line. One person from team A crosses into team B territory and tries to tag as many people from team B as possible before becoming tackled by team B, whose members must remain holding hands. And the person from team A must repeatedly say, "kabaddi, kabaddi, kabaddi" throughout this ordeal - if he stops for a breath, he's out of the game!

The festival also included camel races and camel polo. It's hard to imagine a more unsportly, ungraceful animal than the camel, and that made it all the more entertaining. During the camel races, a couple of camels, who had minds of their own, ran in whatever directions they felt like, such as toward the crowds.

Well, with that inspiration, Erica and I couldn't resist one of Jaisalmer's famous camel safaris: two days on a camel, about four hours of riding each day, with a night spent in the desert. I'd ridden a camel on such a safari before, and obviously I'd forgotten that it is the most uncomfortable means of transportation imaginable.

We set off early on the first day, with a 35-mile jeep ride to the location where we'd meet our camels. There were eight of us - Erica and I were the only two Americans (we've seen surprisingly few Americans in India); the others were British and Australian.

Erica was assigned to a camel named Magoo, or Mr. Magoo, if you will. Mine was named Calloo. He was a fulsome, mean creature, a seven-year-old safari veteran with scars on his long neck and his body. Every time I tried to pet him or attempt to be cordial, he'd grimace and growl like a dragon. He was fond of lagging behind the other camels, then trotting ahead to catch up - or occasionally he'd stop to graze on the "cabri" or "kandhi" trees found in the desert. I was instantly reminded how uncomfortable it was - having one's legs splayed across a camel's back for four hours a day isn't particularly luxurious, and I was sensitive to the dismount, when Calloo would kneel on his front legs (causing me to think I would be hurtled over his head) and then on his hind legs (causing me to think I would then be thrust into a back flip).

But when Calloo wasn't up to mischief, it was a placid, beautiful trip through the Thar Desert. In addition to the aforementioned trees, there was a type of tubular, dense cactus, and we passed little villages and wheat fields along the way. We stopped at one village called Binjota, with about 18 people (of which I'd say 16 were small children - well, I guess there's not much to do in the desert), and were invited into their painted mud houses with cow-dung floors and round rooms with roofs made of branches. Some of the small children ran around with shirts but no pants.
We camped near a small village called Nagraja, on some sand dunes. Our head camel driver, Mita, and his staff of five cooked up some vegetable stew and bread - they offered to slaughter a goat from the village for about $40, but not enough people were interested. Children from the village accompanied us for the sunset; one introduced herself by picking up a large sand beetle and throwing it at us. A man from the village played some monochordal songs for us after dinner, though the singing was drowned out by an argument: Apparently one of our camels had grazed on a villager's wheat field.

Everyone had warned us that it would be freezing at night, but that night it warmed up, and two blankets were plenty. It was a full moon. As I lay down, one of the camels, with his long neck, curved body, and long tail, was standing nearby. His silhouette against the moonlight gave a small sense of what it must have been like in the age of the dinosaurs.

At 9:00 the next morning, after breakfast, we set off again. At 9:20 Calloo went on a rampage, running wildly in circles and craning his neck around. "Stop him! Stop him!" I yelled at the camel drivers, grabbing the reins and trying to yank Calloo into control - I'm a big wuss when it comes to heights.

When Calloo was finally steadied, Mita explained what had happened: The camel ridden by two of the camel drivers had bit Calloo in the rear and wouldn't let go, and the camel drivers' reins had broken, so they couldn't get the antagonizing camel under control. Understandably, Calloo had reacted violently.

We got going again, but I never quite trusted Calloo after that. When we dismounted, two hours later, and I tried to retrive my backpack from where it hung on Calloo's back, Calloo spat at me and roared, yellow fangs bared.

"I am trying to get my bag, you filthy beast!" I yelled, as if Calloo spoke English.

I was happy to get back on the jeep and head into town again.

That night Erica and I stayed in a restored haveli (a traditional, ornately decorated house), complete with hidden shelving units, dozens of hooks for oil lamps, and antique furnishings, and we celebrated our return to civilization - not that we'd been in the desert that long - with our third meal at a restaurant called Trio, a restaurant serving some unusual dishes (such as stuffed tomato, which actually turned out to be stuffed potato, and egg curry) and had pleasant views of one of the main squares and of the fort.

The next morning Erica went for a much-anticipated massage, while I went on a frivolous attempt to buy tickets for the afternoon train back to Jodhpur - although the queue was only 12 people long, it took almost an hour to process the first six, so I gave up. Erica's massage evolved into a conversation about the careers and lives of women in India: This is a country in which arranged marriages, the dowry system, and traditional male and female roles are still very much in place. Her masseuse had earned a law degree, but no one would hire her. In addition to her profession as a massage therapist, she has opened a textile store, ensuring that profits are returned to the women who make the items, rather than - as is usually the case - to the middlemen. She goes so far as to instruct these women to hide their earnings from their husbands, to be put toward their children's education.

We had lunch at a dodgy-looking place full of flies, in which most of the preparation was done by preteen boys - but we were eager to get off the tourist track. Reading the menu provided ample entertainment as we waited for our food: "Marudhar Restuarant. Vegetarion Meal. Liqour Not Allowed. Prepared Food Is Available. Please Keep Silence. Wate For 10-15 Menutes After Givigorder." As we waited, we heard a call from outside the "restuarant": "Hello, friend!" Normally this is a call to ignore - nearly all Indians are eager to call non-Indians "friend" in an attempt to get their attention and direct them into their shops - but it was Mamu, one of the camel drivers from our safari. He joined us for lunch and apologized once again for the mishap with Calloo.

We got on the 4:15 train to Jodhpur, but only in second-class unreserved seating. This can often involve jam-packed cars full of families with screaming children, but in this case the passengers were pleasantly small in number. A group of young Indians joining the military services befriended us, and we played Indian versions of spades and bridge for much of the six-hour journey. We overnighted in Jodhpur and then took an early-morning bus to Udaipur, "Rajasthan's most romantic city," according to one of our guidebooks. The 6.5-hour bus trip took us through a lovely mountain pass replete with monkeys, and though not all seats were filled at the beginning of the trip, by the end the aisle was jammed with men in long, bright-red turbans and women wearing giant golden nose rings and looking after snot-nosed children.

Nestled among hills, Udaipur is still beautiful and romantic, but its star attraction, the Lake Palace - which had floated in Lake Pichola ever since it was built as the maharana's summer residence in 1754 - now sits rather forlornly amidst a grassy field in which cows graze and elephant and camel rides are offered: A series of bad monsoons has resulted in the lake's drying up over the past couple of years. Nevertheless, the buildings are spectacular, and the City Palace was compelling: It was begun by the first maharana of Udaipur in 1568, and each maharana since then has added his own input: a courtyard with glass peacocks, a room with mirrored walls, ornate tiles. In 1877, Maharana Sajjan Singh ordered a crystal collection from England, but he did before it arrived - it remained boxed up for over a century and was only recently put on display. It includes a crystal bed and crystal armchairs - perhaps barely more comfortable than a camel's back, I'd say.

Udaipur provided our two most enjoyable meals in India thus far, though they weren't at the plush restaurants of the Lake Palace or the City Palace; nor were they at the rooftop restaurants of the city's mid-range and budget hotels, which actually turn out fairly decent food, though at a painfully slow pace (most menus instruct diners to allow 30 to 45 minutes per order). Yesterday's lunch was at a small thali place called Natraj, just outside the old city. The waiters loaded our plates with onions, curds, mint chutney, achar (spicy pickles), dal (lentils), and breads and rice, and then added the main dishes: spiced potato and spicy chickpeas, to name just a couple. We mashed this wide variety of flavors together and stuffed ourselves - every time a dish needed refilling, a waiter was there to the rescue. We had dinner at Parkview, which is certainly a misnomer - it's in a dingy room with fake Chinese lanterns and blocked windows. It was full of middle-class Indian families in Western dress. We sampled hearty butter tandoori chicken and a local kind of small eggplant. We didn't realize the restaurant was unlicensed - when we asked for two Kingfishers, the waiter poured them into a bronze jug, brought over two opaque cups wrapped in napkins, and then covered the jug with a plate.

Beyond that, Udaipur was simply an enthralling place to wander - it was easy to get lost in the vegetable markets or wander little lanes with shops selling shawls and silver jewelry, or to wander down a nondescript street and encounter two donkeys fighting, and then see them chasing each other down another street a few minutes later. A Rajasthani dance performance rounded out our time in the north, featuring splendid puppetry and acrobatics.

But enough of Rajasthan; it's time to head to the far south, to the backwaters of Kerala.

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