Jaipur is known for its Amber Fort, a huge, pinkish-yellow castle rebuilt by the Maharajas of the 16th century. We ride up the steep slopes by elephant — they are magnificent, so majestic yet timid-looking with their long lashes, beautifully painted from forehead to trunk. I feel absolutely like a queen on the cushioned “howdah,” moving up and down with the elephant’s slow gait, observing the view of the gardens and the surrounding wall, which looks a bit like the Great Wall of China. The elephants take us into the courtyard of the palace. It’s beautiful, reminiscent of the Alhambra but not so sumptuously decorated. The harsh, hot conditions of the area make the palace seem wilder, with rougher edges; the winds and rain have made the stone sparer. Our guide points out Islamic influences — the 6-pointed star, the scalloped arches. Everything is a sand-colored splendor, a palace in the desert, armored against the heat by stone canopies, painstakingly shaped window formations through which air passes and cools, handicrafted silk screens dampened with water.
We visit the other interesting sites in Jaipur — Royal Albert Hall, the astrological observatory Jantar Mantar, and the wind palace Hawa Mahal. We visit the shops, are persuaded into buying rugs, ruby and sapphire necklaces, cashmere sweaters. Salesmen. All the buildings in the city are of pink stone; they look kind of like beehives, like ancient structures inhabited by shops, tourists, the homeless.
On the road again, making a pitstop in Pushkar. On the way to Jodhpur, Prem tells me a bunch of animal riddles. I didn’t know that peacocks, the national bird of India, became pregnant by drinking the tears of the males during monsoon season. The only animal to do so. The long dirt road flanked by dry farmland and prairies is reminiscent of some backwoods safari, with few animals — dogs, snakes, squirrels, birds, monkeys, cows as always. Cows everywhere, lying in the middle of big roads with heavy traffic, meandering calmly from lane to lane as cars swerve left and right. Cows, skinny, sickly cows eating out of piles of trash along with the dogs. Crows perch in trees, patches of rice grow in the paddies. Women, heavily decorated with silver on their arms, balance gourds on their heads or stand in groups chatting.
The hotel in Jodphur is a dream — decorated with English antiques in every room, from a real stuffed Bengal tiger, to Victorian dolls, beautiful wooden furniture, comodes, wardrobes, bathroom doors, lamps, everything antique and perfectly placed. A real bathtub, a real shower. A pool table, heads of buffalo, deer, cheetah. I feel as if I’ve been transported to one of those colonial romance movies, of the English amongst luxury in India.
Dinner is surely the best one in India so far, (and not to mention breakfast) everything fresh and cooked on the spot, delicious sauces and vegetables, even the familiar winter melon, under the dim lamplight of the dining room, with its beautiful heavy wooden table and chairs, an old luxury that is so bafflingly foreign surrounding us.
The fort in Jodphur is just as fascinating as the one in Jaipur. The museums showcase howdahs, carriages, cradles, paintings, clothes, armor. There are great views from the battlements, from where villages of blue houses can be seen at a distance. I love all castles, no matter what kind or where they are.
Evening arrival at Pushkar. The dirt paths are full of clothing and jewelry shops, leather and shoes. A temple opens up in the back to a small lake as the sun goes down. The water is completely still, reflecting lights from the houses dotting the other side of the lake. Groups of tired dogs lay on the steps. Rainy, wet Pushkar.
On the road again, to Agra. Lunch on the side of the road, dinner at the restaurant opposite our hotel. There is an ant infestation. By this time I’m pretty tired of eating Indian food and jump at the idea of macaroni, or spaghetti. It’s still raining, muddy, muggy. Patri says, “Everywhere you look, there’s a photo waiting to happen.” More so with the chaos of rain; the streets are a calamity made habitual.
The Taj Mahal. I never knew it was a mausoleum. The Mughal emperor Shah Jahan dedicated it to his beloved wife after she died giving birth to their 14th child. Huge, white, ornate, and astonishingly beautiful, much more stately and solemn than I had imagined (not at all like the gold-topped, shiny, tacky Las Vegas image). Against the sky, the river behind it, it is so brilliant, a color reserved only for paintings of heaven, or clouds. I imagined a lush, luminous palace for sultans when inside, there are only two sarcophagi resting on marble — the entire building is a mighty tomb of marble. There is an air of tragedy immortalized; you see that structure and can only begin to imagine the heart which was moved to build something like that, to die in it alongside his wife. One of the seven wonders of the world.
An overnight train to Varanassi, we meet two madrileños, a couple traveling in the same cabin as us. Sleeping in a vehicle which is hurtling along its rails in the dark of night, whizzing by trains going in the other direction. There’s a certain panic in my sleep, fear of collision, the body rocking and hurtling forward at the same speed, unused to such motion.
Morning arrival at Varanassi train station. We’ve been warned: the city is dirty, mazes of small streets, cow dung and puddles everywhere. We visit a string of temples. Everywhere they ask for money, donations for having kept your shoes, or your bags in lockers. Money for having taken a photo of you, for giving you information.
A hot walk by the riverfront of the Ganges, gorgeous old temples flanking the water, idle boats on the dirty, brown water. They hurl the corpses of the homeless, wrapped in white sheets and weighed down with rocks, into the Ganges. There is a crematory on the banks of the river, and in front of it, cremation pyres which burn night and day. On our evening walk, I try to make out a body among the flames. Men come carrying thick firewood, and a body covered in shiny, purple cloth. Traveling seems to make one accustomed to such things, even a morbid curiosity arises to spite the taboo, the fear of death.
An evening boat ride. We catch a glimpse of a ceremony happening. Men splash about in the river, bathing themselves, cooling down in the nighttime waters. The boatman laboriously rows, the long bamboo-like rowers creaking with each effort. It is difficult to row upstream, with the strong currents. That’s the only sound up close, the creaking, the movement of water, then from afar, the splashing of the men, the prayer ceremony beginning. A 10-year-old boy with a timid, dream-like faces sits near the boatman in silence, looking towards us from time to time. All these quiet souls on the boat on a ride which seems timeless, not endless, but outside of time, as if we will never age, as if we really are centuries old already and are still rowing. I don’t want to be just a tourist, someone who is being ferried from one shore to another. I think about what the boy will look like years from now, if he will remember this boat ride — if he remembers any boat ride with foreign strangers. I wonder what he is thinking, as he dutifully, silently steers the boat, I wonder if he’d rather be playing than sitting on this boat with us, how much of his childhood has already been taken from him. We say hello, ask his name. A flicker of a smile brightens his doe-like face, then disappears as he looks with ancient eyes towards the water. The multitude of people which you come across while traveling, but really never know. It is sad, this grazing nearness of souls so different from one another, this awful dependence, temporary relationships based on money, on need. Their insistence has nothing to do with friendliness, or curiosity, or kindness — it is driven only by money. You wish you could go closer, speak to them and have them speak to you as a real person. You wish this boat ride meant more than just a dinky boat ride on the Ganges. You wish the boy and the boatman didn’t have to be on that boat, so solemn, silent, and indifferent to your presence. You wish somehow you could change the world, starting with India.
A tuk-tuk ride to Sarnath, a sacred place of temples. Entering so many temples gets old after awhile, especially under the blazing hot sun. You are eager to enter just to get your bare feet off the scalding pavement and to go under some shade. There is even a Chinese Buddhist temple and a mini-zoo. But inside there are only deer, turtles, some birds, and a crocodile missing in action.
After lunch at the hotel we catch another overnight train, this time back to Delhi, where we started. The stations are always grimy, the tracks littered with all kinds of trash. The wait is always long, and the stares come from all directions. A scream outside is heard halfway through the night as the train speeds through the dark. A man says that someone has fallen off, out the door. The train continues its long journey without stopping.
Arrival in Delhi. The sweltering, relentless, scornful heat envelops us. The streets are full of skinny, dark men pulling carts piled with sacks, honking horns on their rickshaws, sprawled out taking naps on the ground under trees. The transition from life in the occidental world, where traffic bears some resemblance of order and splintering, bent electric poles would be considered a public safety hazard, to a city like Delhi is drastic and unsettling. There is filth piled up everywhere; tiny stores lined up one after another stock second-hand car doors, trinkets, shoes. Everyone in the city seems to be loading up carts, driving, or watching the traffic and passersby like us. There are just so many, many people — filling bus after bus, entire families on rickshaws and motorbikes.
Fatigued, thirsty, and hot, we climb the steps into a red-stoned mosque. I walk across the sunny plaza in a kimono-like robe which they have given me so I can enter decently. The Indians have big, curious eyes and a smile upon exchanging words with you. There are sickly dogs lying in the streets, goats and pigs and cows. Women are the most colorful creatures among the grime, clothed from shoulder to toe in bright garments and with sacks on their heads, clutching tiny, wide-eyed children.
Air conditioning is pure luxury, insurmountable pleasure from the boiling heat. I don’t think I’ve ever felt this hot, not anywhere, not during any summer. I’m afraid to touch anything, to go into bathrooms, to step into any toxic puddle. It’s the culture shock of arrival day, and Delhi, a city of slums, makes it almost unbearable.
At the train station, old, bearded men with orange robes, who look like monks but who are really social outcasts, sadhus, sit chatting intensely on blankets. A man sweeping the floor with a broom made of twigs picks up the pile of trash with his bare hands and tosses bits of it into the trash can.
Amritsar is another big city, 5 hours from Delhi. Its highlight is the Golden Temple, a massive white structure of marble with a large pool in the center where gigantic goldfish swim about. The Temple is bustling with Hindu families, men and women, turbaned Sikhs, a handful of foreigners. The marble floor scorches our bare feet; we walk carefully under the shaded interior where people sit around, nap, or request photos with us. A traditional group begins to play a soothing, religious music on the Indian violin, sitars, and drums.
I have never been inside a Hindu temple before. The women kneel and bow gracefully, reverently, with their heads touching the carpeted floor, in fluid movements which they seem to have spent a lifetime repeating.
In late afternoon we approach the Indian-Pakistani border to watch the changing of the guards. A massive crowd anxiously waits for the soldiers to open the gates. After women, children, and tourists go through, the men surge through their gate in a frantic race in which many sandals and shoes are lost. The ceremony is like a football game rally plus Indian dance party. Both the Indian and Pakistani soldiers parade down towards the border separating the two arenas, lifting their legs in dramatic high kicks and looking like contestants in a speedwalking competition. The atmosphere is fun, competitive, like in some kind of sporting event.
On the road to Dharamshala. Indian breakfast is delicious after hours of driving. Under the shade of a small food stand by the road, with the heat already bearing down on us, we eat dosas, delicious bread filled with onions and potatoes, and drink masala tea.
McLeodGanj is a touristy village at the skirt of the Himalayan mountains. The air is wonderfully cool, at an altitude of 1200 meters, and the streets are filled with shop after shop where we buy pants, bags, scarves, gifts. The mixture of Indians and Tibetans is interesting; Buddhist monks wander the streets alongside Indian families who are vacationing. There is a tranquil atmosphere which always exists in a place nestled in the valley of mountains, even though it is disrupted often by incessant car horns.
The shopping expedition continues, after climbing up to get a glimpse of the not-so spectacular waterfall where crowds of people are splashing around. It’s the weekend and everybody has come to cool off. This is a consumer’s paradise – everything you can possibly buy, at dirt cheap prices, handmade crafts, journals, bracelets, stickers, a world of knick-knacks.
We have lunch in a bright restaurant with floor cushions for seating and windows overlooking the street. I relish the food in this country – the creamy, tangy sauces with paneer, which is like a mixture of cheese and tofu, the biryani (rice) with vegetables and cumin seeds, buttered naan and the dosas filled with potatoes, the banana lassis which are a liquid, refreshing yogurt. Everything is so good, so vividly flavorful, spicy, sweet, pungent.
The temple and home of the Dalai Lama is found here, a simple and clean structure which doesn’t seem like it would house one of the most important spiritual leaders in the world. But there is something pure and humble about it which affects the soul when you walk around the spinning mantras, when you look out to behold the Himalayas in the distance.
In both Western and Eastern religions, one has to take his shoes off to walk on holy ground, one has to go barefoot in a sacred temple or any place close to the divine. The monks which pass by are so calm, they don’t even seem to notice anyone around them. Some of them offer their prayers, kneeling and lying down in a series of salutations on mats. I go around turning the mantra wheels, not knowing what they mean, but hoping they will instill some kind of new energy in me.
We depart for Rishikech, an entire day of traveling in the car. Heat, curves, traffic, trucks, honking horns, pitstops for cigarettes, water, and snacks. I finish an entire book on yogic respiration within the 13 hours we spend driving. We buy sweets and spicy potato chips.
Prem, our taxi-driver and guide, grows on us. He has the skills of a Formula-1 driver, a bushy black moustache, and a humble gait. He likes to laugh at our dumb jokes and makes some pretty good ones himself. He seems sincere, good, with the calmness and directness that characterize the Indians, and with the patience to idle around and deal with Spanish tourists. He has 3 children, a wife, and a dog named Sylvia whom he loves, and seems to have traversed all of India. We’ve taken to calling him Premito, and he appears everywhere unexpectedly. He watches us spend mounds of money on stupid things which are overpriced, and has lunch and dinner with us. I think he likes us.
Arriving at Rishikech is a nightmare. We cross the bridge with our backpacks, exhausted, sweating bullets in the disgusting humidity, getting lost in a city stinking of excrement and filled with homeless men and women sleeping on the street, and cows meandering everywhere. After many twists and turns, we finally arrive at our hotel, covered in sweat, horrified. And Victor had said this was the cleanest city he’d seen in India. I guess times have changed.
A 7:30 morning yoga class with a world-class teacher. We do things I’ve never done in any other class I’ve had, like singing mantras and being corrected to perfection. His voice is unlike any other — powerful, graceful, melodic, clear, slowly diminishing like the echo of a Tibetan singing bowl. His presence is incredible — humble as well as kind, with a smile and a thumbs-up for encouragement. The poses must be perfect; I strain to make them perfect. And yet there is room for mistakes, for unevenly-bending wrists and sore shoulders. I am filled with a sense of wonder as he chants mantras during the relaxation. At the end of class he tells us it is a special day because of the full moon, when energies are strongest and the tide is high.
Through impossible traffic we make our way to the train station to buy tickets. It’s an unbelievable sight — thousands of people crowding the building, sleeping on the ground, waiting in line, children begging for money, for lollipops.
Rishikech is a city divided by a bridge. After heavy rain everything has such vivid colors, and there is a wonderful boisterous-ness to its streets. The sadhus sit on benches begging for change. Boys in orange t-shirts roam around in troops, eyeing us up. At dusk, we attend a ceremony dedicated to Shiva, barefoot on a strip of bridge looking out ono a group of priests who sing prayers, at women who set candles afloat onto the Ganges. The river is wide, with a powerful current and visible whirlpools. On television I’d always marveled at the mightiness of the Ganges and the steps which led righ into its waters, where women washed their clothing and children swam. Sometimes I still can’t believe I’m in India.
Rishikech in the rain. We are caught in the downpour while browsing the bookstores, the markets selling endless trinkets. Under tarps against a small crowd of Indian families, the water rushes downhill over our sandals, taking with it the grime and bits of trash littering the streets. The river and the bridge over it fog up; a mist blankets the other side of the city, across the Ganges whose waters get murkier with the monsoon.
There is something infinitely slow, peaceful, natural about this city. It seems like a city emblematic of India, or whatever I ever understood to be India. Children wander around admidst the cows and goats. Foreign yoga disciples mix with the rest of the crowd who are selling merchandise, sitting in groups watching passersby, carrying goods.
As we look out onto the Ganges at evening time we spot Prem sitting cross-legged facing the water. He says he’s praying. We sit with him by the Ganges as the cool night breezes wash over the heat and sweat of our bodies. He tells us stories of nightmare tourists, and when I ask if he likes his job, he shrugs. We figure it’s not the best job in the world driving around strangers for weeks at a time, but there are worse. He talks about the caste system, marriage, his children. There are always moments like this on every trip, when a local speaks, tells stories, and one is mesmerized, one becomes a student in that foreign place.
The road from Rishikech to Jaipur is long, filled with near-accidents, multitudes of trucks (which are, by the way, all happily decorated as if they were circus vehicles), blinding headlights by nighttime, exhaustion. India is such an incredibly large country; the distances are tiring.
There are always small towns on the way, erected on dirt, with stands selling soda, chips, sweets, fruit. And everywhere, curious eyes peer into our car. If we buy something, entire groups of young men swarm towards us, smiling, staring, wanting to shake our hands or take a picture. The Indians have stern faces from a distance, but once constact is made, their smiles are generous, especially from the children and young people. They are always ready to greet you, shake your hand, follow you, ask you where you’re from. Even with so little they seem content, they like seeing tourists, they like having their photo taken with us.
When we arrive in Jaipur, the monsoon has also arrived. Entire streets flooded with water, trash floating, groups of boys wading through the rain laughing, watching as cars splash huge waves as they attempt to pass.