July 24, 2008

In the Land of Kings

Welcome to Cole's new and improved India blog! Trying to figure out a site name on Blogger showed me just how small I am in this gigantic world. Turns out colepaulson.blogspot.com was already taken (even though it's a white page titled "Never Writing Here," which is apparently true), as was coleinindia.blogspot.com (That Cole has also failed to post ANYTHING on his blog). So although I may not be unique, my goal is to be a Cole in India who will actually write here and keep you all informed.

My recent adventures took me to Rajasthan, "Land of Kings," the desert state in western India with a rich history of medieval kingdoms and where maharajas still hold their honorary thrones.

Jal Mahal, a lake palace

Arriving in Jaipur, the capital, my travel companions and I had the fortune of hiring perhaps the happiest man in India as our driver. Blasting his theme song, "Happy in My Heart," over and over again, Abdullah requires only that his passengers dance along. "You don't dance, get out of my car." Whenever any of us paused from bopping our heads obligingly, he'd ask, "Why are you so unhappy? Are you tired?"

We took a break from our grooving to hike to the top of a hill where a small Hindu temple looks over the whole city. The trail to the temple is populated by an estimated 600 monkeys, all of whom know that humans are an excellent source of snacks. Monkeys are disturbingly clever and mischievous - I've heard stories of them snatching sunglasses off tourists' faces and holding them for ransom, finally giving them up in exchange for a banana. Other, more dim chimps mistake cameras for foodstuffs and steal them away to take bites out of. These monkeys fortunately knew their manners, and they politely took peanuts and crackers out of our hands when we offered.

We also checked out Jantar Mantar, an 18th-century observatory built by Hindu scientists to prove their mastery of astronomy. Suggesting that science reflects the art in nature, today the site looks like a modern art playground, full of geometric triangles and spheres that measure the positioning of the Earth, sun, and stars. A bit less scientific are twelve horoscope towers, one for each sign of the Zodiac, that supposedly use the positioning of the stars in conjunction with birth date information to produce horoscope readings.

Jantar Mantar also boasts the largest sundial in the world, with a gigantic staircase that can be spotted in the recent indie hit "The Fall." (Which you should all rush to see for some astounding cinematography of Indian landmarks.)

Next up was Amber Fort, a monstrous hilltop palace that once housed the rulers of Jaipur kingdom. A spine-like defensive wall traces the ridges of all the surrounding hillsides, and I could have sworn I was in China looking at the Great Wall.

The coolest thing about Amber Fort is that tourists are given virtually free rein to explore every nook and cranny of the place. My comrades and I can't pass up a dark and creepy staircase, so somehow we found ourselves deep in a basement where a batch of bats was peacefully snoozing, at least until we showed up. Flock of bats? Swarm? Terrifying maelstrom of black beating wings? Whatever the collective noun is, the point is that my friends and I had never raced back up a dark and creepy staircase at such an impressive speed before.

The next morning we took a bus to Pushkar, a quiet town that is a holy pilgrimage site for millions of Hindus. It's said that Brahma dropped a lotus from the heavens here, and Pushkar sprang out from where it landed. Dozens of Hindu temples surround a small lake in the town, and pilgrims walk down the ghat staircases to bathe in the holy water. Gandhi's ashes were also strewn here. Brahma, the creation god, is one of the most important Hindu deities, and Pushkar is home to the only existing Brahma temple. I fell in line with the stream of pilgrims coming to worship there, first removing my shoes, cell phone, and camera. Worshippers ring a bell upon entering the temple to alert Brahma to their presence, then offer a gift to a Brahma idol. An old man in front of me saw I had come empty-handed, so he gave me all the flower petals he had brought as offering, then walked me through the process of taking prashad, the sweet snack we receive as a farewell blessing. (For being the counter-culture religion, Sikh worship is surprisingly similar to the Hindu version, complete with a processional of an offering and prashad, only the Hindu idol is replaced with the Sikh holy scriptures. It's clear that Sikhism inherited plenty of cultural traditions.)

Down by the ghats

Now for the part where I get really excited - from Pushkar, we embarked on a desert camel trek. After five weeks of putting up with pushy crowds and persistent salesmen and way more humanity than we're used to, we were all ready to escape to the middle of nowhere, and taking a camel seemed like the coolest way to get there. The most amazing thing? An overnight trip, complete with two cooked meals, only costs an American $10. That's a ridiculous price to ride perhaps the coolest animal ever. Camels are gigantic beasts easily as tall as elephants, and they're even more alien-like. I really shouldn't admit this, but I just kept being reminded of those lumbering Imperial Walkers or whatever they're called in Stars Wars that, I'm well aware, were probably based on camels to begin with. But they move just as slowly, and they're just as robotic. To sit down, they first lower their front legs, making the rider think he's about to fall on his face, then their back. Observe the diagram:

We rode three hours outside of Pushkar before setting up camp. My camel's name was Moti, which either means "Pearl" or "Fatty." I never really got a straight answer, but the fact that he was the slowest of the pack who was always getting left behind might be an indicator. Our guides cooked us dinner, which included balls of bread cooked over a pile of simmering cow dung. A Rajasthani classic - delicious, seriously.

Good grief, if anyone's actually still reading at this point, I commend you. I'd encourage you to just look at all the pretty pictures and skim the commentary, but chances are you're probably already doing so and won't see this anyhow. I have dozens more stories from the trip to share (I really haven't mentioned any of the most bizarre ones), and if I get my way I'll write about them soon. But I'll finish with a darned impressive photo of a Rajasthani folk dancer who we happened upon at a Jaipuri restaurant on our last day. Watching a woman put seven ceramic urns on her head and dance around is nice from a distance, but when she comes over to dance right next to you it becomes a life-or-death thrill ride; one misstep and the audience meets shard-filled deaths, at least according to my grisly imagination.

After the urn stunt, the dancers besieged our table and convinced us all to stand up and dance with them. Doing an Indian-style conga line with these ladies through the restaurant probably ranks among the most fun minutes of my life, even if all the other diners in the restaurant stuck their noses in their menus trying to block out the annoying young tourists. Halfway through a dance step the dancers abruptly stopped, turned and instructed, "Okay, now you give money." See, that's what I like about Indians. No beating around the bush, they just tell you how it's done. And hey, they definitely deserved a tip.

Now I have to prepare for my biggest adventure yet - going to my brother's wedding on the other side of the world. My auntie-ji told me I should just get Joe and Kim to fly to India so she can throw them a proper Indian wedding. And the darndest thing is I think she was serious.


kelly said...

YAY! I actually read the whole thing! And i now have more jealousy burning in my stomach. (then again, that could just be the beers from last night lingering!) Hey, have you seen any Lotus flowers yet?

Deepa said...

"Moti" means fat! It's one of the more commonly used endearments in my household.

Justina said...

I love the happy cabbie story--made me laugh out loud. You should have requested "Girlfriend" or "My Humps" (which is probably Moti's theme song, heh heh) and then you could have really shown your driver some movez.