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