India or Pakistan: Who has the biggest, er, plume?

“Hindustaaaaaaan?”

A roar rips through the crowd….

“Pakistaaaaaaaaan?”

Another roar, this time from a couple of hundred feet away.

The announcements blare out at us from 2 men screaming into their microphones, each on their respective side of the border between India and Pakistan. And the roaring? That’d be the crowds of people packing into stadium seats who have come to cheer on their homeland in tonight’s showdown.

When Pakistan broke apart from India to form an independent nation in 1947, a serious rivalry developed between the two countries that led to a gruesome period of violence known as the Partition.  Although the border closing ceremony that now takes places between them every night is grounded in this bloody history, the nature of the competition has been toned down to little more than a playful back-and-forth where locals from each side come to duke it out each night. The purpose of it all at this point is anyone’s guess, but the event is a tradition that has gone on for years, and the excitement and fervor surrounding it today more closely resembles an American football game than a harken to a violent period of history.

Amritsar, the city in which we’ve been staying for the past 4 or 5 days, is about 40km from the border of Pakistan, and afternoon shuttles leave from the Golden Temple every day to cart Indian and foreign tourists out to the Indian border town of Atari to experience this spectacle first hand.  We hired a private taxi from the temple, and inside waiting to go with us was another Indian family of 4 from Delhi. It would be their first time attending the ceremony, as well. The ride out to Atari went quickly, likely due to our nervous small talk –where the heck are we?– as we neared the Pakistan border.

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India/Pakistan border closing

The taxi unloaded us at a checkpoint in front of the border, and from there, we drifted apart from our new friends and joined hoards of others to walk the rest of the way. We reached a closed gate where we were told everyone would need to wait to be let in at once, and from a cursory glance at the bulging crowd, it was clear that waiting there could get dangerous in a hurry (despite our short time in India thus far, we had already experienced the common behavior in crowds – the pushing, the shoving, the cutting in lines – and the amount of people waiting behind this gate was only getting bigger).
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India/Pakistan border closing

It seemed everyone around us was bent on getting to the front of the line, so we tried to stand as much to the side as we could and let everyone else sweatily elbow it out. We saw several women working their way out of the middle of the mostly-male crowd, disgustedly gesturing as if they’d been groped (an issue so problematic in India that public transportation in the cities often offers female-only busses and subway cars). After a 20 minutes or so, the gate was opened, and the crowds piled through in a Black-Friday-esque stampede. We saw a few people fall down and struggle to get back up, narrowly escaping tragedy. The worst part was, Steph and I had to be separated for the entire fiasco, as the border guards had decided to split the group up by gender, to avoid said groping and shoving by the men.

As the men’s gate swung open, I tried to stay toward the back but got swept into the shuffle, fighting to stay standing and make it through the gate without getting trampled. Steph and I were finally able to find each other again, and we were both visibly shaken. Steph told me that once she got through the gates and turned to wait for me (in the men’s group), the 100+deep crowd of men were collectively pushing the gate open, causing the border guards to physically beat several men back with their batons! What was going on here??? …And she had been terrified that I wouldn’t survive the stampede that she was about to watch unfold.

After Steph and I had both survived the first gate, everyone stopped and compressed into a pile again: we were at another gate. Steph was nearly in tears as she had to separate from me again as we had to pass through the gender-specific gates. The women’s line, while still very crowded and dangerous, appeared tame compared to the men’s. The men continued to compete to be first in line for the next gate, and in anticipation of some attempts to actually jump the gates, police officers with batons were stationed on horses at the front, beating men back whenever they came too close. Unfortunately this stop-and-go would continue for 3 or 4 more gates, with little kids getting smashed, saris ripped, hair clips pulled out, until we finally reached the border.

India/Pakistan border closing

At the final gate, we were (sorry to say, thankfully) segregated by nationality (residents versus foreign tourists), and along with a group of similarly-frustrated Europeans, we all calmly walked toward the front row seating area designated for tourists and took our seats.

Large stadium seating flanked either side of a road that crossed directly between the countries, and soldiers with gigantic plumes on their heads marched up and down the streets. A large metal gate on the border line itself was closed tight, and soldiers on either side guarded it with guns resting on their shoulders.

And there, we got our first glimpse of… Pakistan!

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India/Pakistan border closing

On the Indian side, Indian citizens took turns running a huge Indian flag back and forth in front of the stands, while the crowd roared in approval. Young groups of kids danced to blaring Bollywood club music, and the announcer prodded the crowd with call-and-response chants.

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India/Pakistan border closing

India/Pakistan border closing

After our over-stimulated eyes and ears had adjusted to all of the excitement, we finally turned out attention to the Pakistan side in the distance. The men, dressed in all white or light blue clothing, sat quietly, separated from the women, in one set of bleachers. Across from them, a rainbow of pink, green, blue, and red saris filled the other set of seats.

The announcers prodded the crowd along, “Hindustaaan??” (the nickname used for the Indian side of the Partition), and “Pakistaaaaaan??”, both followed with cheering from their respective crowds. The Pakistanis sat quietly at first, watching the Indians run, dance, and cheer, and we wondered when they would join in the raucous banter.

One by one, soldiers on each side lined up to take the microphone in a bizarre game where they would attempt to hold a “aayyyyoooooooo” note for as long as their breath would allow. When a soldier ran out of steam, he or she would high-step dramatically forward out of the line-up and march towards the border. When they reached the closed gate, each soldier would do an extra hard couple of stomps and high kicks, trying to intimidate the other side’s border guards. The crowd cheered for the soldier’s efforts, and the other side would follow suit, first trying to hold a longer “ayooo” before stomping it out at the gate. For the record, Pakistan consistently held a longer ayyoooo.

This game went on for 30 minutes or so, at which point all soldiers from each side had given a yell and stomped to the gates. The guards dramatically threw open the gate separating India from Pakistan (there was now nothing stopping us from hopping to the other side!! – save for those M16s pointed at the neutral territory). Once the gate was thrown open, the soldiers alternated in a more personal showdown of stomps directly in front of the other country, sometimes even high-stepping over the line, which was received by the crowd as an even more aggressive taunt. The ceremony concluded with both sides lowering their flags and loudly slamming the metal gates shut. By this point, the Pakistanis had upped the volume of their cheering tremendously, far out-crying their Indian counterparts by the time the ceremony came to a close.
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As we filed out of our seats to leave, we turned to wave to the Pakistanis just on the other side of the gate. It was strange to think that these were a people we would never get a chance to meet, standing in a land we would never be allowed to enter, living lives we would simply never experience or understand.

So who was the winner of the India/Pakistan showdown that day? We had to hand it to the Pakistani womenwho were hooting, hollering, and stomping it out far louder than anyone else. Well played, ladies.

Posing with the Indian announcer and border guard….
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India/Pakistan border closing

India/Pakistan border closing

Shoe Shopping in Punjab

The Indian state of Punjab is famous for its beautiful hand-embroidered leather sandals. I was shopping for some of these shoes today at a little store run by a Sikh man wearing a bright purple turban named Jaspreet (or “Smarty”, as his business card says). I had been eyeing his colorful leather sandals all week and finally decided to drop in to have a look.

Much like shopping for patchwork materials in Rajasthan, Smarty preferred that I sit down on a bench while he brought shoes to me that he thought I would like. Now, that would be fine if Smarty knew me or my taste at all, but, well… he just didn’t.

Nope, my and Smarty’s tastes did not align. The first pair of shoes he brought me were something from The Wizard of Oz– closed-toed slippers literally covered in gold sequins, with a large split in the front of the toe box, as if I might have two gigantic toes that could split apart (I know my brother will have something snarky to add here – private joke)– nothing at all like the gorgeous light brown leather ones I had been eyeing on the wall.

The worst part about this approach was that we’d learned that saying “no” can be considered rude (…the Hindi word for “no” exists but it is not generally used except in extreme situations; for example, if an Indian person wants to say “no” they will avoid saying the word and will go to great lengths to convey the message in some other way, i.e. “I’ll check..”, “maybe later”, even if they know something is impossible). To avoid saying that I absolutely abhorred those shoes, I could only casually direct the conversation with each new pair of shoes that he brought me: “Maybe some with less sequins?”, “Ones with more light brown?”, or “Ones that look good.” All the while I was thinking, “Can’t I just point to the shoes that I want that are sitting right there on the wall and save us both a lot of time??”

I finally asked Smarty if I could stand up and look for myself– he looked a little disappointed, but he said yes (what could he have said– “no”? hehehe.) I picked out one pair I liked. He didn’t have my size, so he went into the back and brought out something he said would be “similar”. The ones I picked were light brown leather with a small amount of red embroidery on the side– the ones he brought me were black, with green and red flowers sewn into the top, with a bright red puff ball the size of a golf ball tied onto the top. Not wanting to hurt his feelings, I tried them on, and I, of course, looked ridiculous. Was Smarty just playing with me at this point??

He continued, “I know you like those shoes on the wall, but I think this style is much better for your wide feet.” Smarty clearly had experience talking with women…

But he really decided to hit it home when I started to scan the wall again for other shoes to try: “Madam, don’t go looking at all of the selections hanging on the wall, all of the choices will just confuse you.”  And with that, I decided to to rest my brain from the arduous task of looking at Smarty’s shoes any longer – permanently. After all, I wouldn’t want to risk getting too confused.

A temple for everyone in Amritsar

Standing at edge of the pool surrounding the Golden Temple feels like standing in one of the most peaceful places on earth. Sikh gurus broadcast chilling chants that reverberate across the temple complex, people kneel and bathe in silent worship at the water’s edge, the setting sun’s reflection dances across the pool in a dazzling show of purples, oranges, and pinks. Indeed, there is something about pilgrimage sites that is so calming and beautiful, if not down-right fascinating as outside observers (and we’ve sure seen a lot of them on this trip). Never have I spent 5 straight days visiting one single temple, as we did at this one (except for maybe that week of Vacation Bible School way back when…) – especially one that is not even part of my own religion!

Being the holiest site on earth for members of the Sikh religion, pilgrims from around the world flock here to worship in the temple and hear their gurus read from the original Guru Granth Sahib (the Holy Book of Sikhism). The temple itself is also truly remarkable: a three hundred year old structure made of white marble, completely plated in gold, made even more beautiful by the body of water that surrounds it.

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To accommodate the thousands of people who visit here every day, the Sikhs have set up free dorm rooms in which people can stay, and they run a dining hall that serves free food nearly 24 hours a day (except from 2AM-6AM, when they serve only tea).  Even non-Sikhs are invited to take part in the accommodation and free meals and are graciously welcomed into the temple by followers.

Head coverings, for both men and women, are required anywhere in the vicinity of the Golden Temple:

Screen Shot 2014-12-18 at 7.16.23 AMOn our first day walking around the Golden Temple complex, we met a guy named Montit while we all storing our shoes at the complex’s entrance. Montit took us under his wing, asked about our time in Rajasthan (he had traveled to the temple all the way from Jodhpur, like us) and showed us how to line up to receive meals at the temple. On the way, he told us that the dining hall is run completely by volunteers, Sikhs offering their time to their holy temple, which they are expected to do for one week at least once in their life.

At the mess hall, we were given metal plates from an older man wearing a beautiful purple turban, a small bowl, and finally a spoon from an adorable little kid who was all too excited to be handing out spoons to foreigners. We filed inside the main mess hall with hundreds of other people, where we sat on the floor on small woven rugs in long rows.

Screen Shot 2014-12-18 at 7.17.00 AMAs the volunteers began walking down the aisles serving up food, we got a quick run-down of the whole process from Montit– giving me mere seconds to place the small bowl I had received off to the side before my plate got hit with a huge dollop of lentils! Volunteers walked by carrying large pots of dahl, boiled beans, sweet rice pudding, and water, which they slopped onto our plates (and our toes if we weren’t careful!) one person at-a-time down the line. One man came by carrying chapatti (unleavened bread), which we were told to accept by holding out our hands in front of us near our foreheads and taking it as an offering, as it was thrown forcefully down into our hands (with a big smile).http://www.flickr.com/photos/12339764@N00/6942242934/in/set-72157629401515786

As the volunteers began walking down the aisles serving up food, we got a quick run-down of the whole process from Montit– giving me mere seconds to place the small bowl I had received off to the side before my plate got hit with a huge dollop of lentils! Volunteers walked by carrying large pots of dahl, boiled beans, sweet rice pudding, and water, which they slopped onto our plates (and our toes if we weren’t careful!) one person at-a-time down the line. One man came by carrying chapatti (unleavened bread), which we were told to accept by holding out our hands in front of us near our foreheads and taking it as an offering, as it was thrown forcefully down into our hands (with a big smile).

While we were eating, Montit told us more about Sikhism. Sikhism is a monotheistic religion, and although it is the 5th largest religion in the world (!), the vast majority of Sikhs (~75%) live in Punjab state (which is perhaps why the religion was so foreign to us). He told us that Sikhs must carry or wear 5 specific “articles of faith” with them at all times: uncut hair (usually concealed in a turban), a wooden comb, a steel bracelet, a dagger, and special underwear… (some articles are more practical than others). These rules are not just regarded as symbolic – several times I saw an old woman’s sari move aside to reveal a sword on her hip! I also got a glimpse of the “special underwear” several times, mostly on little boys going for a swim – from what I could tell, it consists of a white string that wraps around the waist with a loin cloth type covering in the front.

According to the free booklets we picked up from the entrance, Sikhs also uphold an interesting, admirable set of social values, and they are all expected to act as “saint-soldiers” – meaning they “must possess the courage to defend the rights of anyone who is wrongfully oppressed or persecuted regardless of race, belief, and religion”. We also found interesting the “casual nature” of the rules of the religion, wherein anytime a commandment was stated in one of their booklets, it was always qualified with a statement that essentially said  “…but if you’re unable do that, it’s OK.” (As in: “As a Sikh, you should meditate every morning at dawn… but if that conflicts with your schedule, of course it’s okay to miss.”)

The food at the med hall was delicious, and I spent my time savoring every bite of mine – that is until I noticed the huge mop aiming right for me as it plowed down the line of people, already cleaning up for the next group of diners! The mop man was followed by the squeegee man and a hoard of new diners, and we quickly lifted our plates, finished our meals, and handed our dishes to the dishwashers (who wash the plates 5 times, we were told! …But with just water, we think…:)).

Even saints don’t weasel out of dish-duty….

On our way out of the mess hall, we noticed about 50 people sitting on the floor that we hadn’t noticed before – they were more volunteers, peeling mountains of garlic and slicing piles of chili peppers for that evening’s meals.

Screen Shot 2014-12-18 at 7.18.13 AMOn our way out of the mess hall, we noticed about 50 people sitting on the floor that we hadn’t noticed before – they were more volunteers, peeling mountains of garlic and slicing piles of chili peppers for that evening’s meals.

Golden Temple, Amritsar, India

Montit asked us if we wanted to join them in volunteering (as he was also about to begin his weekly duty of handing out plates), but we were too anxious to see the Golden Temple that was still looming through the gates in the distance…

The line to enter the temple itself was always so long that we delayed going in for several days. When we finally did, we were able to see one of the 10 holy saints– he was seated on a large purple cushion, being fanned by someone with a large white feather plume, reading scriptures from an old book that was about 4 feet tall by 3 feet wide – awesome!! It was better than anything I could have imagined! (no pictures allowed)

As I watched the holy men sitting next to the saint, I suddenly noticed that their lips were moving precisely with the chanting that we were hearing (and had been hearing 24 hours a day for the past week) – the music had been LIVE the whole time! Unfortunately, the inner temple was extremely crowded, to the point that I got worried about being trampled or suffocated, and we didn’t have time to watch the guru or the singers for long.

The temple itself was beautiful, but we only entered it one time during our entire week hanging around the temple complex. The thing we enjoyed the most about being at the complex were all of the friendly, curious people who came up to speak to us while we wandered around the grounds – people who just seemed excited to see foreigners at their temple, practice their English, ask us where we were from…. Many of the women wanted to shake my hand, and countless people asked to take our pictures. Whenever a seat would open up across from us while we were eating, someone would actually get up from where they were sitting and snag it so that they could watch whatever we did from head-on! To be honest, we felt like minor celebrities!

One guy came up to me as I was drinking my free cup of chai and asked me to sign his arm! “Your autograph, please?”

“Really?” I asked him. “Wait, no, really??” Yep, he was sure:

Screen Shot 2014-12-18 at 7.18.41 AMDeciding that my signature wasn’t permanent enough, he and his friends later caught up with us after we had walked away and asked Scott to sign his 10 rupee bill!

One of my favorite minor-celebrity moments was when a plump, older women walked up to me, smiled, and shook my hand. Deciding that wasn’t good enough either, she proceeded to then pull me in for a huge bear hug. All I could do was just laugh as she embraced me. All she could do was laugh back, too.

Outside of the temple, we found plenty else to occupy our time in Amritsar. One of the most interesting things we did was visit two Hindu temples, which did their best to stand out  in spite of the Sikh-dominated town they were in.

The first Hindu temple we visited was….drumroll please… The Silver Temple! (I can’t make this up….)  It was an exact replica of the Golden Temple, but smaller and far less ornate, and this time Hindu rather than Sikh. Why someone decided to construct a temple that would surely be directly compared to the world-class temple across town was beyond us. (I can just picture the architect unveiling his new design to his colleagues.. “Voila!!!”) Despite the unfortunate, unavoidable comparison, the temple was interesting and certainly unlike the other Hindu temples we had visited.

Screen Shot 2014-12-18 at 7.36.07 AMThe cutest part of all the temple twin-mania, though? Like its larger Sikh sister temple, the SIlver Temple also served 5-cent Cokes to the temple-goers, which was something we had also been enjoying at the Golden Temple (again, another subsidized item that the temple has set up for its pilgrims to enjoy their journey to the temple).

Silver Temple, Amritsar, India

Next, we took a visit to Mata Lal Devi Temple, a Hindu temple dedicated to a female saint where women wishing to have children come to pray (no, that is not why I went, Mom). After 7 months of touring around Asia, we agreed that this might have been our favorite temple so far…(though the Golden Temple was a close-second). Mata temple, which was more like a psychedelic funhouse than a holy place, consisted of a labyrinthine, cave-like path that gradually worked its way to an inner temple where the shrine to Lal Devi was held. Along the way, the path twisted, turned, passed through calf-deep water, led into distorting mirrors, passed through tunnels, banked at sharp angles…all while passing by countless (disturbing) shrines and giant sculptures to various deities, illuminated in colored lights.

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Traversing through the water-feature…

Mata Temple, Amritsar, India

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Truly, it was bizarre beyond words…

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Screen Shot 2014-12-18 at 7.24.29 AMHaving survived the labyrinth of Mata Temple, we were blessed with a red tikka on our foreheads at the end…

IMG_1798 2…which we quickly had to rub off before returning to the Golden Temple for our meal that night…. 😉

On our final night in Amritsar, we visited the temple one last time, but we were disappointed that we couldn’t find Montit at the mess hall to say goodbye–maybe he had finished his week of volunteering.

IMG_1869As we were waiting for our train out of town, we met a group of people who were (again) excited to speak with some foreigners… When they said that they had been visiting Amritsar for the weekend, I asked the girl my age, “Oh, is your religion Sikh?”, to which she answered that she was.

“And you?” she asked.

“Christian.”

We both hesitated, not sure what to say next.

She held up one finger. “One God,” she said, smiling.

I smiled back. “I think so, too.”

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A Ride in Luggage Class…

After a month of jumping around India by trains, we had ridden in just about every class of train available– 2AC, 3AC, 1 non-AC, RAC, chair car– but we had yet to ride in “Unreserved”… train-speak for: find your own damned spot on the train.

Train to Amritsar

We honestly didn’t mean to see ourselves squashed like sausages into a train car normally designated for luggage on this particular day, but we were left with little choice when we arrived at Dhuri Junction (read: the middle of nowhere…..) at 2:00 in the morning on an overnight train from Rajasthan. We were trying to get to the northern town of Amritsar, still another 4-hour bus ride away from Dhuri, but the busses wouldn’t start running until 6:00 AM. At 2:00 in the morning, Dhuri Junction is not the type of place you want to be sitting around for 4 hours; people seemed nice enough, but there was nowhere to sit comfortably, and the staring from everyone had us a little uncomfortable (tourists apparently don’t go to Dhuri Junction).  So we asked the man at the train ticket counter whether there were any trains going to Amritsar– as luck would have it, there was one coming in 15 minutes!! It would take ~5 hours to reach Amritsar, which was far better than waiting around for a 6AM bus. This close to the departure, however, we were only allowed to get “unreserved” tickets– it would be up to us to muscle our way onto the train.

At one point, I left to use the station’s bathroom (the bathroom-ista was so surprised to see a tourist there, that he let me in for free!); I returned to Scott to find him surrounded by at least 8 guys, who had finally mustered up the courage to approach him and ask him the usual questions – “your country? first time in India? your occupation? your salary?” One of the guys, Deepak, happened to be taking the same train as us that day – lucky, because when the train arrived, he was able to sweet-talk someone into opening the door of their train car for us to let us on (we noticed that some of the cars get so full that passengers on board will hold the door shut so that no one else can board!)

As we began fighting our way on board the luggage car, the train conductor ran up to us (we stood out pretty badly in Dhuri Junction), “You’re getting on the wrong train!” he said, and he motioned of us to show him our tickets. As foreigners, he thought we should be have been getting onto a higher class of car, but we assured him that “unreserved” was exactly the tickets we were holding. People were smashed into every corner of this car, sitting up in the luggage rafters, leaning out the windows, standing in every available inch possible.

If there’s one thing we’ve learned about travel, getting from place to place is always that much better when it is done alongside the locals. They know the local sites, they have stories about them to share, they’re sometimes interested in hearing about where you come from, and somebody usually has some music playing, out loud – it’s always better than taking the stuffy, air-conditioned cab where no one talks to each other and you’ve learned nothing by the end of the ride. This train ride was no different, and the particular car we had shoved our way onto could not have been any better. We found ourselves surrounded by about 10 guys, all about our age, who thought it was hilarious we got stuck in their car and wanted to ask us a million questions – about the U.S.’s presence in Pakistan, our knowledge of Indian rap music, whether I had ever washed my filthy laptop bag (hah! that just killed me), my Facebook name…

At one point, they were concerned that we wouldn’t want to stand for the full 5 hour ride to Amritsar, so they encouraged us to squat, which was far more uncomfortable to our untrained American legs.. and every 5 minutes or so (when the legs would fall asleep), we alternated between squatting and standing, literally smashed into the knees of our new friends.

Screen Shot 2014-12-17 at 9.06.05 PMAnd so it was that we sped through the blackness of the night across the plains of northern India, the cool wind whipping in through the barred windows– yes, this was traveling!Screen Shot 2014-12-17 at 9.08.50 PM

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Around 5 AM, some of our friends began departing the train before us, and we were all surprisingly sad to see each other go our separate ways (maybe our sleep-deprived brains were causing us to be overly-sentimental). One little boy that we hadn’t talked to directly yet came up to us as he was leaving and wanted a hug from Scott. And Scott obliged with a huge bear hug. When Deepak was getting off the train, he told us he would miss us and gave us both a hug. Sundeep even bought us both a cup of hot chai and passed it in through the window to us after he got off at his station!

Eventually, we were able to get a seat for ourselves, which was a God-send, as our “5 hour ride” turned into a grueling 12 hour slog that put us in Amritsar long after that 6AM bus would have…  When we finally arrived at our hotel in Amritsar (around 3 pm!), utterly exhausted, we tossed our bags aside and immediately crashed, shoes on and all. When I awoke a few hours later, disoriented and confused (the way all mid-day naps seem to end), I had 4 new messages and “friend requests” waiting for me on Facebook– although now it all felt like a dream, our midnight train ride through the plains of India had happened, after all.

A word on hygiene…

Oh dear.

I went to buy some treats at the local sweet shop today. I ordered one, thinking it would be transferred with tongs or a napkin onto a plate; instead, the guy behind the counter grabbed the soggy bite-sized piece of cake with his bare hands and held it out for me to take.

The first that time that happened, I was a little taken aback. I thought, “Oh wow– OK, well, it’s probably fine– I’m sure he’s washed his hands before coming into the kitchen just for the purpose of handing out sweets…” But in a month of traveling through Rajasthan, I’ve come to worry that each time this happens, the person has definitely not washed his hands, or has most certainly sneezed into them, 5 minutes before handling my cake. I’ve seen it happen folks.

sweet shop, Jodhpur.

Screen Shot 2014-12-17 at 8.59.42 PMIf it’s not already obvious, the hygiene and sanitation we’ve experienced India has led me to the point of frustration many, many times. But I am a microbiologist, and I probably think about disease transmission more than most. Despite that, I’ve managed to overlook the fact that there was a open box of baby chicks dumped down my back on the bus yesterday (Are they carrying H5N1!? I wondered). I’ve overlooked the fact that I will not be able to wash my hands after using a public bathroom until I reach my hotel room. I tried to overlook the man that gouged away at his nostril 6 inches away from me on the bus and then wiped his finger on the pole (OK, I’ve seen that in Boston before too…). I overlook these things (or try to) because India is worth it– there are more historic, beautiful, amazing sights in India than I could see in a lifetime of traveling the country. But the lack of hygiene and the filth we’ve dealt with… well, it’s shocking, and it’s sad for such an amazing place. But I’m not just detailing my experiences for shock value here; bear with me– I have a point.

A few nights ago we were eating in a Delhi restaurant– the pots of curry at the entrance were bubbling away and the place was crowded with locals– always a good sign. As I ate my food (it was delicious), a seemingly middle-class man sitting next to us chewed on a chicken bone for a while and instead of placing the bone back onto his plate, he threw it right onto the floor under the table!

After we had finished our food, I casually watched the restaurant staff wash the dishes as we waited for our bill– they scraped the excess food of our plates, gave the dishes a quick swish in the tap water, without soap, and set them out for the next customer. I was, however, probably the only person who should have cared that they were washed without soap, as I quickly learned why they don’t need to wash the dishes. After you are given something to drink in small restaurants such as the one we were in, you are expected to pour the liquid into your mouth from some height without touching the glass to your lips… well, crap, I just drank right from the glass, I thought– how many people before me had made the same mistake?

This experience did offer some guidance though– I had read somewhere that in places like that, you can “control” the level hygiene when you dine somewhere if you eat with your hands, rather than with silverware. At first, I didn’t understand why, especially since my hands are usually dirty from touching doorknobs/money/etc all day. Now the rules for eating were becoming clear: wash the hands, eat with the hands, avoid the unwashed silverware and drinking glasses at all costs. (Apparently everyone else in the restaurant already knew the drill…)

The offending restaurant… watch for stray chicken bones…

Delhi, India

Another enormous problem: there are no trashcans in India, it seems. We’ve been here for 3 weeks, and I did see one at a train station once. So I know they exist. Why there are not more, I do not know. What this lack of trashcans means is that, like in many developing countries, many people unfortunately throw their trash onto the sidewalk or out the window of the bus rather than holding onto it. In fact, the practice seems to be so acceptable to some people here that the following happened to us one day: we were talking to a nice guy we met on the train, and when I finished eating a bag of chips, he smiled, snatched the Lay’s bag out of my hands and tossed it right out the window for me. The only correct reply from me was a forced, meager “thanks…” Sadly, the trash not only looks and smells bad, it is eaten by the multitude of cows and dogs who roam the streets. I saw a cow chewing on a plastic bag outside of the Jaisalmer fort the other day; he swallowed it and just broke my heart at the same time.

Thankfully, the majority of the trash does not stay on the ground for long; in Jodhpur, we noticed that it was someone’s job to go around the city each morning and sweep up all the trash lying in the street into piles and haul it off in a push-cart.  Now this made me think: it’s possible that when people throw their trash onto the ground or onto the train tracks, they are doing it with the realization that it is someone’s job to collect the trash later and that the trash will not just be left to rot on the street. At the least, they’re keeping the trash collector employed. But even if those reasonings were true, that trash collectors would still have jobs, even if they were collecting it from a trash bin instead of from the street, right? I don’t get it. If the cost of cans is the issue, it would be wonderful if people could get creative in an effort to keep their streets cleaner – we noticed that in Nepal, Cambodia, and Laos, people make trashcans out of woven palm fronds– something that would not cost the government a cent. When the cans are available, people seem to use them.

But candy wrappers and coke bottles are the least of one’s worries when walking around cities in Rajasthan. In the town of Jodhpur, there are cows everywhere. Which means there is poop– everywhere. Even worse, some of the cow poop gets pushed into the gutters, where it turns into a never-ending poop sludge… one that gets stepped in, tracked inside of homes, and accidentally consumed, I’m sure. (As a funny side note, one day I was walking down the street in Jodhpur, doing the usual poop-hop-shuffle, when I felt something hit the top of my head. Scott confirmed my worst fears– pigeons. Poop was coming at us from every angle!) But the most telling, eye-opening hygiene problem we saw during our time in Jodhpur was the day we visited Meharangh Fort. We were walking up a steep hill, and I was looking down as I walked– suddenly we came upon a girl, at least 8 years old– she had her dress hiked up, tush up in the air, and she was defecating in the middle of the road. Excited to see foreigners, she lifted one hand from her knees to wave and scream “hiii-iii!” to us. We waved and smiled back in blank-faced, shocked horror– sadly, all that waste we had been trying to step over wasn’t only from cows, after all. That scene brought my worries for the town to a new level entirely: transmission of human-specific diseases (Shigella spp…), concern about the level of health education– this was a new ballgame entirely.

cows…

Screen Shot 2014-12-17 at 9.01.15 PMpigeons… (I can’t make this stuff up!)

Jodhpur, India

Indeed, one of the biggest problems we’ve seen in India has to be the amount of people using the sidewalks, walls, and roadways for bathroom functions instead of proper bathrooms.  Unfortunately, this behavior is something we have seen in every city we’ve been to. What we can’t figure out is why it happens on such a large scale. Is there a lack of toilets that people have access to? Are there fees at the bathrooms that people can’t afford or don’t want to pay? Incredibly, the adults who engage in this kind of behavior encourage their children to do the same– waiting at the train tracks, I watched as a dad held his little girl’s hand, helped her unzip her pants, and held onto her shoulders as she peed right into the tracks below. Meanwhile, I had just used the real toilet that was 50 feet away… If the bathroom fee at train stations is the issue, would it be possible for the government to waive the payment for people who hold a train ticket, which goes toward running the railway in the first place?

Sitting at the same train station, Scott and I noticed a constant disturbing smell that would not go away. We kept asking each other, where is it coming from? Having seen the streets in front of the station in Jodhpur earlier, we knew there was a lot of human waste in front of the station along the roadway, and we figured that the smell was blowing in from the street. As soon as we strolled over to the train tracks, we couldn’t believe we hadn’t figured it out before. There were piles of human waste (unhealthy-looking waste) completely covering the tracks. One train station employee, a young guy of about 20, has the duty of cleaning the trash that ends up in the train tracks every morning. I watched him as he walked around sweeping up the trash and human waste on the tracks at Jodhpur Junction one morning, while a younger guy of maybe 15 pushed around a cart behind him to collect everything. As I watched them, I witnessed something that shocked me– a woman walked over to the tracks and leaned over to hand something to the boy– she was handing her trash (a paper cup and some bread) to the trash collector. Sadly, I had been so used to people throwing their trash onto the ground that I was surprised to see someone disposing of trash properly. But then, I watched as he carried her “trash” to the other side of the tracks where he placed it on the other side for her, so that she could jump down into the tracks, go to the other side and collect it there off the ground (where she would wait for her train). Apparently, she had just been getting his help in carrying her food to the other side; it didn’t concern her what he had just been handling and that he was now handling her food. So many instances such as these that make me sigh in frustration.

When we got on the train later that day, we found ourselves sitting across from a family: mom, dad, two young girls, baby boy, and grandma. Unfortunately, the grandma had a persistent, productive cough, and she was coughing, coughing, all the time, all over her hands, over us, everything– eventually, she picked up her little baby grandson, and, trying to pacify him, stuck her two first fingers right into the baby’s mouth for him to suck on!

But acquiring a cough would be the least of that baby’s worries that day, as in many places, babies in India sometimes don’t wear diapers– they soil their pants and the baby gets a new change of pants. That’s great; I am all for people saving resources and avoiding throw-away diapers. But as for when the baby poops, I’m not sure what the usual process is. Somehow the mom of this baby got the feeling that her baby needed to poop; she calmly removed the baby’s pants, picked him up, and held him outside the open train window so that he could go!! Thank goodness he didn’t need to go (probably got stage fright!), and she quickly pulled him back inside the moving train… But, my god!!

I should absolutely make it clear that, obviously, these hygiene issues we’ve been seeing are only a problem specific to certain people, and is not a generalization about the country as a whole. Certainly, these sanitation problems also bothered many of the Indian people who we spoke to, and to cope they have learned where the more hygienic restaurants are located and how to avoid many of the situations we encountered. It does make me wonder, then, why the education and behavior from the upper classes has not yet trickled down to the extent that I would have expected, or even why some behaviors aren’t made more culturally unacceptable within certain communities.

As an outsider, it seems so simple to address some of the problems… Install some trashcans in the city, organize a campaign to encourage people to use proper bathrooms, keep the cows in designated safe areas, encourage and institute proper hand-washing practices in restaurants, teach people about the major ways that diseases are transmitted… With some backing from an NGO or other organization, it would be so doable!! But then we moved on to the town of Jaisalmer, and then to Amritsar, and to Chopta…the hygiene problem was confronting us in the whole of India! 

A stroll around Amritsar…

Screen Shot 2014-12-17 at 9.04.33 PMHow does the government of almost one billion people even begin to address this one (of many) issues on such a widespread scale? It is overwhelming at best. But more importantly, where is the concern from the citizens for keeping their own country in livable conditions?

I certainly can’t begin to understand or propose solutions to the problems of the largest democracy in the world, so I’ll close with the real point that I am driving at. It, too, starts with a story: one morning in Jodhpur, we were awoken by a local man vomiting violently in his house next to our hotel. I groaned, rolled over, and tried to go back to sleep. Next morning, same thing happened again. I was annoyed at again being awoken at 5:00 in the morning by the sounds of someone’s dinner hitting the other side of the room, but I also started to feel bad for the man at the same time (rarely do I remember having a sickness that left me vomiting for more than two days in a row!)… Sadly, this exact scenario continued to play out every morning that we stayed in Jodhpur– for 6 days straight. Did this happen to this man every day of his life? I don’t claim to know why he was sick or how he acquired the condition, but hearing his sickness play out every morning helped solidify my frustration with the “hygiene problem” of India… It’s not frustrating simply because it makes the cities smelly or unsightly or difficult to visit; it’s frustrating because it is making people sick.

The girl that I saw vomiting in the street yesterday, the school kid having diarrhea on the floor of the Amritsar train station…  Would they be sick (would I be sick right now??) if the sweet-shop owner had simply washed his hands (and not handled the money) before handing out that cake, or the restaurant owner had used soap on that cup between customers? It’s difficult to say. But they would sure be a healthy start.

Camel Trekking in the Thar Desert

We decided to finish off our time in Jaisalmer in proper desert form: an overnight camel trek, deep into the sand dunes of the Thar desert.

Our trek began from the hotel, from which we were picked up in our “safari jeep”: a white ’92 Corolla with no hubcaps (or seatbelts). More terrifying was our 15-year-old driver, who spent half the time looking back at us while speeding forward into the desert, rather than looking at the road…

On the way, we stopped off at the Bada Bagh Cenotaphs, a major burial site of past maharajas.

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Next stop: the middle of the desert, where our driver planned to find our camel and guide. Along the way, we saw several camels roaming wild, and later learned that they likely had an owner and were used for work or trekking, but are set free during the slow season, only to be found later on when business picks up again.

Camel trekking in Jaisalmer

Our driver seemed to have a hard time finding our camels, and after stopping several times to ask seemingly random folks along the way – donkey herders and the like – we eventually parked, and he told us to wait by the car while he set off for a walk, chatting on his phone along the way.

…and there we waited, for a good while.

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Eventually, we took off in a new direction, catapulted our Corolla over some dunes, and there we found a few camels and a man – our guide – walking alongside. Without any introduction, we were assigned camels for the day: Steph was grudgingly given the rugged-looking large camel, which we later learned was named Rambo. Mine, a gentler-looking camel with a cuddly-sounding name. The camels bowed down to let us climb up atop the pile-of-blankets saddle on their back, and we were off!

Camel trekking in Jaisalmer

Camel trekking in Jaisalmer

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We rode through dry rocky brush landscape for most of the morning. Our driver walked alongside the third camel while we made small talk about our families, camels (“aren’t these supposed to spit a lot?”), and Rajasthani rural life. The sparse landscape seemed to go on for miles without any sign of civilization (or the sand dunes we’d been expecting) – just emptiness… completely surreal.

The dry heat was oppressive, and we constantly sipped from our water jugs while bouncing along. In the prior few days, I’d come down with a fever and nausea (likely caused by something I’d eaten that could have been more hygienically prepared). While riding the camel, I was still battling the nausea, which made the heat even harder to deal with.

A few hours in, we stopped to make lunch under a tree. Our guide tied up the camels and unpacked a cooking set from bags on the camels’ backs.

Camel trekking in Jaisalmer

He made us a great lunch: chai tea, spicy cabbage curry, loads of chapati (flat tortilla-like bread), and some crispy puffs that expanded when fried in oil (sortof like cheese doodles).

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Just as he finished cooking, Rambo spotted some female camels in the distance and wrestled his ropes loose so he could go for a flirt. Our guide had to go retrieve him, which made for good timing as my nausea was coming on pretty fierce and I had to bury/hide some of the food he’d made for me (rather than making him think we didn’t like it – it was great!).

Our guide, chasing Rambo. Two female camels, to the left:

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Speaking of too much food… there was no way we were going to be able to eat the loads of chapati he’d cooked for us. Fortunately, Rambo was a big fan.

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After lunch, we loaded up the bags on the camels again (which my camel did not like at all), and with shirts tied over our heads, we set off again for the dunes.

Camel trekking in Jaisalmer

The ride from here went on for hours, with the terrain slowly becoming more sandy.

Camel trekking in Jaisalmer

A couple of guys who were on a sunset camel trek joined up with us. They were from the US and living in Mumbai, both there on Fulbright scholarships studying gay social acceptance in India (amazingly, homosexuality itself was illegal in India until 2009!).

A couple of hours more, we finally made it to the sand dunes, where we planned to spend the night. We unpacked and walked around while our guide made more chai and puffs, followed by dinner which I again was unable to eat (feeling worse as the day progressed).

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Being in the dunes was just like we’d imagined from seeing it in the movies.

Camel trekking in Jaisalmer

Screen Shot 2014-12-17 at 8.31.05 PMWhile our guide was cooking dinner, a nomad wandered over and seemed to be upset about something, or perhaps he wanted some of the dinner (I would have gladly given him mine!). After a little while, he left again, walking off into the sunset.

Screen Shot 2014-12-17 at 8.51.10 PMOne unexpected annoyance came around dusk. Black beetles rose up from beneath the sand and seemed to magnetize toward people! We spent the entire evening beating them back by kicking sand and rolling them down the dunes, after which they’d upright themselves and walk right back at us. Our guide told us the beetles would sink back into the sand when it got colder in the night…

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The other guys on the sunset tour left for the night. We picked a spot in the middle of the dunes to lay out our bedding and settle in. The beetles did seem to thin out as night set in, but never entirely, and many were found nestled into our blankets throughout the night.

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Camel trekking in Jaisalmer

Camel trekking in Jaisalmer

The night was completely black, quiet, and peaceful. Before bed, we drew shapes with the camera using the light of the full moon – ah, the romance! Steph finally made a star.

Camel trekking in Jaisalmer

Screen Shot 2014-12-17 at 8.55.56 PMIn the morning, we woke up to the sunrise over the dunes, and spent some time exploring. It’s hard to tell in the pictures that some of the dunes were at least 30 feet tall!

Camel trekking in Jaisalmer

Camel trekking in Jaisalmer

Camel trekking in Jaisalmer

IMG_1696 2Beetle tracks covered the surface of the sand.

IMG_1694 2After a lazy breakfast, we were back in the “saddle”, headed back to the city. This made for another long, hot ride, but the sights along the way made it all worthwhile.

Camel trekking in Jaisalmer

Camel trekking in Jaisalmer

Camel trekking in Jaisalmer

One last pic before de-cameling, the shutter of the camera half-jammed with sand (fortunately it worked itself out later).

Camel trekking in Jaisalmer

We met up with our jeep – a real one this time – and visited one more stop on the way home: a village in the desert, where some kids greeted us and wanted to take pictures. They also asked for “school pens”, which we’ve found to be very common in India. As hard as it is, we try not to reinforce the idea that tourists are here for hand-outs, so we didn’t give them pens, but we did joke around with them for a while, which seemed to be just as pleasing.

The conditions they lived in were dire, and sad to see, though all-too-common around India. It was hard to imagine how kids growing up in this village will have much of a chance to succeed. Just another reminder that although much of India is relatively well-off, the lower classes are completely cut off from that prosperity.

Village kids outside Jaisalmer, India

Village kids outside Jaisalmer, India

And that concluded our desert trek. Back to Jaisalmer and time to move on to our next destination…

Deserted in Jaisalmer

Jaisalmer, India: sand fortress city and tollbooth of the Silk Road, smack in the middle of the harsh Thar Desert, where camel trading caravans once rested en route between what is now Pakistan and Eastern Asian points beyond. Getting there by train would not be possible for us, as Indian Railways almost always fully books trains 2 weeks in advance, and we hadn’t planned any of our future stops. So a bus then: a nice, scenic drive into the desert from Jodhpur, 5 hours tops – the idea didn’t sound all that bad…

Well, it started out that way, at least. Upon arrival at the bus station, we were able to secure our own seats (a rarity in India), while most of the other hundred-plus passengers crammed into the aisle and into the luggage berth that hung above our heads. For the first couple of hours, we were able to keep our seats, but around that time Steph noticed a little toddler having trouble holding herself up in the aisle among the crowd and the bumps. She motioned to the kid’s mother that the little one could come share a corner of Steph’s seat, and overjoyed, she picked up her kid and promptly wedged her own rather large body along with her little one, into Steph’s seat, smushing Steph into me and me into the wall where we’d remain for the rest of the trip! A misunderstanding? I’m not sure, but the next 3 hours were certainly sweaty…and frustrating. It didn’t help that the guys behind us were pulling Steph’s chair into a 30-degree recline as well, forcing her to hang on to the handle of the seat in front of us. When we finally arrived, Steph had that now-familiar, “I’m pretty tired of India” look on her face. But as the woman picked up her little one and exited, she thanked Steph for the gesture in the little English she knew, and that extra gesture to accommodate us in our language seemed to make it all okay.

Like most arrivals on our trip, Jaisalmer’s bus stop had no shortage of hustlers. This time, they were tough desert dudes with aviator glasses driving open-back jeeps, but the shouting and haggling for us to pick their desired hotel was all the same. One man was kind enough to offer us a free ride to the hotel we’d already booked so that he could pitch his camel tour company along the way – good deal, and soon enough we were in the comfort of a great spot, Shahi Palace, with great views of the fort from the rooftop.

Jaisalmer, India

Jaisalmer, India

Jaisalmer, India

Jaisalmer, India

Jaisalmer is the oldest “living” fort in the world, with a certain portion of the city’s population residing within the walls of the sandcastle that dominates the skyline, while the rest of the city has sprawled out into the desert in more recent years. Jaisalmer is classic desert living: dry, hot, and very remote, and its inhabitants bare a little more of a middle-eastern look and dress as well, making it appear as if we’d been dropped somewhere in the middle of Pakistan (which makes sense, as we weren’t but 40km from the border).

The first morning of our stay, we set off up the hill to explore the fort. Along the way, we found all sorts of animals roaming the town, including a family of wild-looking pigs who lived across the street.

Jaisalmer, India

Jaisalmer, India

Jaisalmer, India

We also found all the familiar hard-to-ignore Indian city sights and smells: poop of undetermined origin on the streets, the strong ammonia scent from men peeing on the walls, plus loads of sand saturating the air. Within the fort, conditions seemed to improve, in at least that the poo on the ground was now clearly from the hordes of cows wandering its cobblestone alleyways (rather than people), and those cows were, as usual, very cute.

We learned that each cow does have an owner, and it’s at the doorstep of that owner’s house where a cow will return each morning and night to wait for its serving of Chapati!

IMG_1438Wandering the fort was a highlight of our time in Jaisalmer. Though many sections were unfortunately tourist-developed with homemade Lonely Planet certification banners bragging for each hotel’s popularity, it wasn’t hard to see and imagine the magical place it once was, and the shops made and sold genuine and beautiful homemade goods.

We wandered up and down the alleys, dipping into a store here and there, and were often offered a cup of chai while the shop owner laid out his best wares on the floor in front of us.

A dog sleeping on top of colored powders left over from the recent Holi festival, when everyone has festive, powder-throwing fights in the streets.

Holi dog

Steph with her free chai, shopping for table runners made from patches of Hindu and Muslim dresses.

IMG_1443Storefront within the fort walls

IMG_1444Me, admiring an antique 3-key padlock that was tricky to open

Jaisalmer, India

A view from one of the rooftops in the fort, looking across at a Jain temple.

Jaisalmer, India

A cow resting in the fort.

IMG_1448Hindu swastikas (not nazi ones). In the Hindu religion, swastikas represent good fortune.

Jaisalmer, India

A painting of Lord Ganesh, which was commonly seen next to each home’s front-door.

IMG_1457Views from the tops of the fort walls

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IMG_1505We met a man on the street one day who was playing an old violin-like instrument and singing loudly. We sat and listened for a while, enjoying a few songs, such as the one in the video below, which he told us was traditionally sung to a couple who have just been married.

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Also inside the fort were several ornate Jain temples. Jains practice a strict form of Hinduism, which includes rules for abstaining from eating many more foods than the typical vegetarian Hindu diet, such as garlic and onions, and famously preaches non-violence (Ghandi later borrowed this Jain principle in his independence rallying). Some interior shots of the Jain Temple we visited:

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Jain temple in Jaisalmer, India

Jain temple in Jaisalmer, India

We also toured several of the ancient havelis (mansions from noble families), both unofficially and on official terms with paid-entry and audio-tour headphones to boot….

Me, ready to rock the haveli tour.

IMG_1516Peering out from the walls of a haveli hallway (2).

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A practice horse, for royal children to be towed around upon.

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Us from the haveli rooftop

IMG_1531…and also unofficially, when invited by a shop owner who was restoring a haveli of his own. This haveli was once this man’s great-great(-great-great-great?) grandfathers home, and in dire need of repair.

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Jaisalmer, India

Jaisalmer, India

One morning, we entered the fort to find a festival underway; Gangaur festival to be precise, which is celebrated annually throughout Rajasthan. Is there anything more colorful than a festival in India?

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We concluded most days on the rooftop of our hotel, with cold beers and delicious, rich food from the restaurant.

Jaisalmer, India

As we’d been staying at the hotel for a little while, we eventually made friends with the kitchen staff, and we were invited to learn how to make proper chapati, masala chai, and more. According to Steph (as I wasn’t feeling well enough to attend the lesson that night), the cleanliness and hygiene in the kitchen was pretty unfortunate, and given the chance, she would have added a few line items to their recipe prep, such as hand washing, not nose picking, and more. But the staff was friendly, and the food was cooked piping hot, so hey, who are we to judge?

IMG_1548The cooking lessons became a regular thing, and anytime we were on the rooftop, they’d grab Steph whenever a customer placed an order for a new dish. One night, the cook who we’d befriended asked if we do any Indian cooking at home (“are you cooking in your country?”). We mentioned that we can’t easily find the quality of spices they use in India, but that at home we would “try”.

“Chai?” he responded excitedly.
“No, no, we will try…”
“Chai is easy – it takes 5 minutes to make. Come to the kitchen I show you.”
…And off she went to learn his chai recipe, which Steph wrote down so we can try it when we get home.

The remainder of our time in Jaisalmer is an event in itself: an overnight camel trek deep into the Thar Desert. We’ll follow up on that separately.