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.

IMG_1565 IMG_1550

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.

Journey to Jodhpur

Our next stop out of Delhi would be the desert state of Rajasthan –  one of the most exotic, traditional,  “India-of-the-movies” provinces in the country. To get there, we would need to take an overnight train out of Old Delhi – simple enough, we figured. But this was India, and we were quickly learning that nothing (nothing) is simple in India.

Booking Train Tickets…

To book a ticket, we first had to wrestle with the Indian Railways booking site, which would tell us what trains run each route but not actually let us book them. We would also need to decide which class to ride in, as there are 1AC, 2AC, 3AC, 2nd, 3rd, Sleeper Class (which has no beds, and certainly no sleeping), Chair Car, unreserved, Luggage, waiting list, “reservation against cancellation” (?), all with upper/middle/lower/upper side/lower side seats! Of course, once we made all these decisions (which took several days), we found that there were not any trains available soon anyway, as there are so many people in India, the seats on the train are heavily wait-listed weeks ahead of time!!  To deal with this, India has made some tickets available just for tourists, but these must be booked in person. So instead of booking online, we had to book our ticket 4 days in advance by showing up in person at the New Delhi tourist booking office and wait in line for 2 hours. When we got to the front of the queue, there were no tickets for the train we wanted, so the ticket officer suggested that we go to a different city. Weird suggestion? Yes. Did we have a choice? Nope. So instead of heading to our intended destination (Jaisalmer), we opted to go to the ancient “blue” city of Jodhpur (don’t you just love how we travel?).

Leaving Delhi

To catch our train out of Delhi, we took an auto-rickshaw to the railway station, a journey that had us weaving through the streets of Old Delhi just after dusk and feeling more unsafe than I had ever felt on the whole of our trip. A place that we had thought looked like a dirty construction zone during the day, was now a place that looked like a post-apocalyptic war zone at night. The streets were ominously dark and dusty, lit only by occasional streets lights whose beams cut through the thick haze and dust kicked up by the traffic. Papers and colorful food wrappers whirled through the streets in miniature tornadoes. To complete the set, a man urinating, not just on the side of the road, but in the median of the roadway. We dodged cows, other rickshaws, more urinating men… around fallen cement blocks and people sleeping on the asphalt… I looped my bag tight around my arms and tucked myself into the dark corner of the open-sided taxi.

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IMG_1298We eventually reached our train and located our 4-person sleeping berth, which we shared with two other men. One was dressed in a white robe, white sandals, and a white rope for a belt. He wore perfectly round thick-rimmed glasses and had frizzy hair that stood several inches from the top of his head. I’ll call him Jesus-Harry-Caray. Before the train started off, JHC offered his top-bunk to Scott (so that Scott could be closer to me, we thought, in reality, it was so JHC could entertain adjacent passengers with tea and loud conversation in his lower bed throughout the course of the night). As they were switching seats, I blatantly laughed and pointed out that a train employee must have left a broom up in Scott’s new bed… Only after JC went to grab it off the bunk did I realize that it was a religious piece… his religious piece (in my defense though, it was in fact a broom– a 4 foot-long silver rod with a white fluffy plume on one end..  a fancy broom!). I didn’t have to feel embarrassed or guilty for long, as JC loudly passed horrible gas and yelled into his cellphone all night. His loud chatter at his tea party in the bunk below me woke me up well before dawn, but that didn’t stop JHC from yelling to me, “Good morning! We have reached Jodhpur!” once we finally arrived. Thanks…. (our alarm then confirmed).

A week in Jodhpur

We arrived in Jodhpur at 5am. We stumbled off the train and into our waiting rickshaw, which drove us through a veritable maze of crumbly buildings, cows, dirt, and more poop. What are we doing here? As we neared Old Jodhpur, things became noticeably more quaint and historic (no less poop, of course– more in fact, yes definitely more, but still charming).  Our guesthouse manager escorted our weary bodies up 4 flights of tall stairs to the roof of our guesthouse, our blurry, red eyes struggling against the rising sun, as we got our first glimpse of Old Jodhpur– it was all blue…..

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Jodhpur, India

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IMG_1398and there was a not-at-all-bad view of Mehrangarh fort as well…

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I had asked many people who had been to Jodhpur (Indian and foreign) why the city was painted blue, yet no one had ever seemed to know (some mentioned they’d never thought to ask!). When we arrived at the guesthouse, I finally got an answer from our guesthouse owner: first, blue paint keeps the buildings cooler in the scorching desert sun, second, it repels mosquitoes (though it was not clear to me whether that is due to the color, whether there is a special chemical in their blue paint that just happens to repel them… or whether Jodhpur just has no mosquitos anyway.)

From the roof, we had a view over the entirety of the old city, and I spent hours mesmerized by the real-life dollhouse playing out before our eyes– a woman washing colorful saris in the house across the way, women cutting vegetables on the rooftop just below us, a man who would climb up one ladder, disappear, and appear a few minutes later in another building’s doorway. The buildings seemed to be laid out in complete randomness, being placed at odd angles to one another, with rooftops all reaching to different heights.  It was our first introduction to “rooftop living”. In India, rooftops are an extension of the rest of the house… a place where chores are done and a place to relax, come evening-time. We’ve noticed that they also provide the fastest mode of communication– just go to your rooftop and yell across to your neighbor. Apparently in conservative villages, rooftops are also the means of communication for women who aren’t allowed to leave their home unaccompanied – I’m convinced that these rooftops are where the world’s next revolution will be launched.

Our first full day in Jodhpur, we hiked to Mehrangarh fort, a massive hill-top structure built in the 1500’s and the only fort in the world never to have been taken by force. The sheer angle that you would have to take to approach the fort surely took care of that.

Jodhpur, India

Jodhpur, India

On our way to the fort, we were stopped by a young man claiming to be a Henna tattoo artist. He brought us into his home and proudly pointed to a stack of papers on a shelf – “awards” he’d won as a Henna artist. Sensing that he was probably not really trained in Henna at all, but not really caring either, I agreed to get a tattoo on my arm, and he guaranteed that it would last “3-4 weeks”. He decided to do a custom design based on my shirt I was wearing. It took him about 20 seconds to complete, sloppily throwing his Henna pen around on my arm. I probably could have done a better job, and I was quite glad when it faded closer to, I don’t know, 3-4 days, as opposed to the promised amount of time.

IMG_1327With my Indian look now complete, we resumed our trek to the fort entrance.

IMG_1328Mehrangarh fort was a beautiful, impressive stone structure, featuring a coronation throne, ornate living quarters, entertaining rooms, and separate female-only havelis, where the wives of the maharajas were able to peek out on the happenings in the courtyards without being seen by the men below….

Jodhpur, India

Handprints by wives of the deceased majaraja, just before throwing themselves on his funeral pyre to die by his side.

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Jodhpur, India

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Jodhpur, India

Jodhpur, India

Jodhpur, India

Jodhpur, India

Whereas we had come to see the fort, many Indian tourists were just excited to see us! This young boy came up to Scott several different times to start a conversation before finally getting up the nerve to ask for his picture…

IMG_1350These women, who were collecting dusty chunks of rock into a bucket near the fort, were giddy with excitement when they saw us and asked to have their picture taken…

IMG_1383More sights around the fort…

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The remainder of our days in Jodhpur were spent walking the streets of the Old City– a simple activity that sounds so nice and quaint, made dramatically more difficult and dangerous by the dodging of motorbikes while playing poop hopscotch. Just when I thought I had acquired a knack for avoiding the majority of poop on the ground, I felt something hit the side of my head– scott confirmed my worst fears- pigeons. Some of the locals who saw what had happened thought it was just a riot. Another guy strolled up to us casually as he was passing by– “Pigeon?” We nodded, as Scott tried to scrape it out of my hair with some cardboard we found on he ground (which was almost certainly also covered in poop!!).

Droppings aside, Jodhpur was our first introduction into Rajasthani food (great segue, yes?) – somewhat different than the food we had come to know and love from Indian restaurants in the U.S. (said to have more of a Punjabi influence, rather than Rajasthani). Breakfasts consisted of parathas– pan-fried flat cakes stuffed with shredded onions and potatoes, served with a seriously salty/vinegary (and I might add bathroom-cleaner-esque) pickled vegetables and curd (unpasteurized yogurt, which could have used some of the bathroom cleaner perhaps). Lassis (yogurt drinks) were also on the menu, as we expected, but we only needed to order those once to know that the yogurt in India is a bit more “gamey” than it might be at home. For dinner, we were usually served a thali, a set menu of ~5 small dishes (stewed lentils, pickled vegetables, curried vegetables…), served with rice and chapatis. Meat was never on the menu, from what we could tell, and neither was alcohol (though you could order a “special coffee”… code for beer) Many of the Rajasthani dishes were prepared with even stricter requirements than a typical vegetarian diet; our favorite restaurant in Jodhpur had several “Jain” (a strict form of Hinduism) dishes on the menu, which were required to be free of any onions, garlic, and potatoes (considered to be foods that slow down your body, rather than provide energy and focus for productive meditation). This Jain breakfast (below) consisted of yellow rice with raisins and sweet plain yogurt on top – it was delicious!

Jodhpur, India

Jodhpur, India

We liked Jodhpur because it felt like a place that people live, rather than merely tour, and we were able to observe Indian small-city life in all its hectic splendor…

Jodhpur, India

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Fort at day. Jodhpur, India

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City Eyes

The convenience of our evening arrival in India did not foreshadow what was soon to come; a private driver from the hotel was waiting – right on time – at the Delhi airport, and we were comfortably escorted to what appeared to be the swankiest hotel room we’d had our whole trip.

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Yes, things were comfortable at first, but the real India took little time to show its face…

It began with the electricity: turn on several lights at a time, or plug the teapot into an outlet, and snap: a short circuit for the entire wing of our hotel. I had some work to finish up that night, so the need for power was imminent; minutes within arrival, there I was, out in the hall looking for a maintenance person to fix our room. This time, ironic convenience was on our side: the breaker panel just outside our door, loose wires dangling out the top, was left ajar for guests to correct their circuit glitches themselves. India, we would soon learn, always has an answer; it’s the questions you end up asking that are crazy.

Flipping the circuit back taught us the benefits of an Indian power surge: when the power comes back, either after the daily citywide outages, or a routine circuit crash in the room, it really comes back. You can charge a Macbook Air in 20 minutes, or boil a teapot in less than 1! Anyway, with the power back again (at least until the next city-wide outage) we were left to battle the wifi, for which we’d already requested a password, but the young gents at the front desk just couldn’t take their eyes off the cricket match to help. No rush, it turned out: when we did eventually get a password, the internet didn’t work anyway, and we were told it wouldn’t work for the remainder of the night. Work would have to wait for tonight…

I suppose I could mention some other missteps of the evening: the delivery boy from the restaurant who smiled and never returned with our change, or our luxurious-looking many-headed shower that spat a stream of either steam-pipe-hot or numbingly cold water horizontally out the wall (which Steph then collected from across the room in a bucket for bathing).  These were the sort of daily inconveniences that we would get used to, and that was just the scene inside our room…

Delhi, India

Delhi, India

In our travels, we’ve visited some of the poorest, resource-strapped locales, and certainly aren’t new to uncomfortable settings. Yet New Delhi still felt like a category of its own. Utterly overcrowded, filthy, cows wandering aimlessly in the streets and eating out of dumpsters, car horns that seemed to be on by default, dangerous obstacles everywhere… did I mention the filth? Poop – presumably not all from the cows – in the gutters alongside the roads. The smell was a constant flux, from rich masalas and buttery naan, to feces, to exhaust, to body odors, and back to something nice again. This mess seemed to extend to any area we visited; as a major world city, the conditions there really took us by surprise. To be frank, the place looked like a giant construction zone. Even Connaught Place, a major trendy shopping district, sat tangled in a nest of wires, busted concrete, piles of sand, and well, more poop it seemed.

IMG_1234Malaria clinic at Conaught Place.

Delhi, India

To our further surprise, New Delhi proved to be a mere primer for Old Delhi, the former city center and home to even further overcrowding and in-your-face poverty. If there was ever a moment that we felt we had never travelled anywhere before, getting off the metro one morning in Old Delhi was certainly it. Delhi is one of the (maybe the) oldest cities in the world, and as Steph said, Old Delhi appeared as if nothing had been removed since its founding thousands of years ago, but rather layered and layered on top of all that was already there. Signs over signs over other signs… power lines wrapping buildings like yarn… the obstacles seemed to multiply as well.

Shots from Main St., Old Delhi:

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Delhi, India

We carefully navigated the tight streets, jammed with ox carts, cars, bicycles, and scooters as flashes from welding lights sparked from the metal work shops along the sides, and vendors surrounded themselves with pots of burbling masalas and cooked chapati over tall, open flames. Every garage-front had a group of men sweating away on some sort of craft that might have been made in that spot for hundreds of years: ice cubes, cart axels, grain bags, and more. Each store seemed to specialize in, and sell just one thing: a door handle store, one for hinges, and another for car bumpers.

Delhi, India

Screen Shot 2014-12-17 at 5.32.30 PMAn Old Delhi hospital. Eek. Watch you toes in that traffic:

IMG_1248Our plan was to make our way to visit Jama Masjid Mosque, the largest mosque in Delhi. The way there, while not physically far, involved a maze of alleyways, forking and twisting around buildings, beneath dusty drapes stretched overhead to block out the midday sun. Around one corner, a garbage heap with women sifting for anything of worth, the next, a traffic jam of people and carts; all along, we were met with unflinching stares.

But try as it may, the place was still impossible for us to dislike. How could you not find this place fascinating, what in all its post-apocalyptic haze? And of course, amongst the mess, there was plenty to legitimately appreciate as well.

Delhi, India

For one, the colors. It seemed every woman on the street was draped in a beautiful sari of a different vivid color combination, and thick gold on their face, neck, ears, and wrists.

Delhi, India

Screen Shot 2014-12-17 at 5.33.58 PMThe foods were bright as well, more like bubbling vats of paint than anything fit to eat. But indeed, they were fit to eat, at least in the sense that they were delicious – as for safety, that’s anyone’s guess (the term “Delhi Belly” didn’t just happen for nothing).

IMG_1286Cheesecake-ish treats from a sweet shop:

Delhi, India

A cool, yogurt lassi in a clay pot (which was destroyed after use!)

Delhi, India

Also, despite the universal, intimidating stares, most every person we talked to was friendly and helpful, which was critical in finding our way to Jama Masjid.

The front entrance to Jama Masjid

Delhi, India

View from the interior, with Red Fort in the backdrop

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Steph in the courtyard. Behind her, worshippers drink and bathe in the small pool of water.

IMG_1260Worshippers in prayer, facing Mecca.

IMG_1261A woman at Jama Masjid

IMG_1268We entered Jama Masjid in between prayer calls, and inside, many people were performing the religious routines you’d expect to find in an Islamic temple: bowing in the direction of Mecca, reading their Quran propped on little bookrests, bathing in the pool in the center of the mosque.  Many were also eager to chat (“your country?”) and take their picture with us (something we’d soon get used to in India).

Steph saw this woman peeking at her several times before finally getting the courage to come up and ask for a picture with Steph.

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…okay, we were the ones who asked for this picture:

IMG_1274Upon returning to New Delhi after a day in the Old, we’d seen enough that our eyes had begun to adjust. New Delhi began to look almost tame… almost. In the book Midnight’s Children, which takes place in India, Salman Rushdie calls it “city eyes”: this ability we all have to become accustomed to the filth, the begging, the suffering right in front of our eyes. It sounds cold, but without this ability, I’m afraid India would be completely overwhelming.

Delhi, India

Delhi, India

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Delhi, India

Delhi, India

Steph out to dinner at a typical restaurant (Chana Masala and naan)

IMG_1244Gaining our city eyes would prove important in India, as it’s easy to dwell so much on that bad that you miss true beauty in between. India was already proving itself to us as a place unlike any we’d seen, and in our next stops, we were certain to see much more.

Delhi, India